Senate Judiciary Committee members Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., left, and Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill. confer on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, May 20, 2013, as the committee assembled to work on a landmark immigration bill to secure the border and offer citizenship to millions. The panel is aiming to pass the legislation out of committee this week, setting up a high-stakes debate on the Senate floor. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
WASHINGTON — Leading senators working to resolve a key issue on immigration legislation have agreed to a compromise covering expansion of a high-tech visa program, officials said today, resolving one of two major hurdles to committee passage of the landmark bill.
The deal negotiated by Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, aimed to resolve the interests of the high-tech industry, which relies increasingly on skilled foreign workers, and organized labor, which represents American workers.
The officials who confirmed the agreement did so on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly ahead of an official announcement.
As drafted, the bill would raise the current cap on so-called H-1B visas for highly skilled workers from 65,000 annually to 110,000, with the possibility of a further rise to 180,000. The legislation also included new protections designed to ensure American workers get the first shot at jobs, and high-tech firms objected to some of those constraints.
Hatch, whose state has a large high-tech industry, championed their cause. Schumer, an author of the bill, worked to satisfy in his concerns. In exchange, Hatch told reporters Monday he’d committed to supporting the overall legislation when it comes to a vote in committee, lending it important GOP support.
The deal disclosed today modifies several amendments Hatch introduced on high-tech visas, including limiting some of the bill’s protections for U.S. workers to companies that are more heavily dependent on H-1B visas. That would exclude many major U.S. firms.
However, the AFL-CIO said it had not agreed to the deal, and it appeared possible that the measure would move forward without the labor union’s support for that piece of it.
On the other major remaining unresolved issue, officials said there was a growing if unspoken expectation that the measure would likely emerge from committee without a provision granting same-sex spouses the same access to legal status as heterosexual spouses are entitled to.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who chairs the Judiciary Committee, has introduced a proposal to give equal treatment under the bill to same-sex couples, a provision gay rights groups seek. Several lobbyists and others noted during the day Monday that he had not said definitively that he would seek a vote on it before the panel completes its work, and neither the White House nor other Democrats on the committee have made a strong push for its inclusion.
Two people familiar with the deliberations said the White House had suggested to Leahy that it would be best to put the controversy until bill goes before the full Senate. The people were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and insisted on anonymity.
A vote on the proposal could create political difficulty for Democrats on the committee who support gay rights and are also members of the so-called Gang of Eight, which negotiated the main features of the legislation. That includes Schumer and Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois.
Durbin has told outside groups he will back the change if it is offered. Schumer hasn’t said which way he would vote.
All eight authors of the bill have pledged to maintain the essential outlines of the legislation. A vote to add the gay rights provision could lead to approval on a party-line vote in committee, but lead to the collapse of Republican support on the Senate floor and the bill’s demise.
In addition, the Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling by early July that could render the issue largely moot.
At its core, the legislation would provide an opportunity of U.S. citizenship to millions of immigrants living in the country illegally, create a new visa program for low-skilled workers and permit a sizeable increase in the number of high-tech visas, at the same time it mandates new measures to crack down on future unlawful immigration.
Final committee approval is expected by midweek, with the full Senate likely to begin debate next month.
The measure is one of President Barack Obama’s top domestic priorities, although the administration has generally let the committee work on its own.
In a show of support, though, Obama and Vice President Joe Biden arranged to meet today in the Oval Office at the White House with individuals directly affected by the measure.
In a long day of drafting on Monday, the panel voted to begin phasing in a requirement for foreigners to undergo fingerprinting when they leave the country. Lawmakers also agreed to make an immigrant’s third drunk driving conviction a deportable offense in some cases.
The committee rejected other proposals that backers of the bill said were unworkable.
Among them was one by Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., to require that every application filed as a first step toward seeking citizenship be done so online.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, sought to include a provision requiring applicants to disclose any Social Security numbers they had used previously, but that fell on a party-line vote.
Democrats, too, were forced to scale back some of their proposals to win support.
Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, dropped a provision making Pell Grants available to individuals who have embarked on the path to citizenship. She won agreement for more limited benefits, such as access to financial aid.