(Bloomberg) — Senator Orrin Hatch reached an agreement with Democrats on changes to a high-skilled visa program, clearing an impediment to Republican support for legislation revising U.S. immigration law.
“There were several things that he proposed that were absolutely unacceptable; we tried to find those things that were acceptable and to build upon them, and I think we’ve reached a reasonable compromise,” says Illinois Senator Richard Durbin, the chamber’s second-ranking Democrat and a co-author of the immigration proposal.
The Judiciary Committee, in its fifth day of considering amendments, is expected to finish work on the immigration bill soon, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, told reporters.
The agreement with Hatch would change the formula for calculating the number of visas for foreign technology workers while keeping the bill’s limit of 180,000 a year. It would lift a requirement that companies look for a U.S. worker before hiring a foreign visa holder for all companies except those whose workforce is more than 15 percent foreign.
“If a firm has more than 15 percent foreign employees, there are going to be more rigorous standards in terms of recruitment and making these jobs available to Americans,” says Durbin. He pushed for protections for U.S. workers to be included in the original Senate plan.
The Senate bill seeks to balance a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., sought by Democrats, with enough border-security improvements to satisfy Republicans. It was written by a group of four Republican and four Democratic senators.
Durbin, Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York and other authors of the Senate immigration bill have been courting Hatch’s vote. Hatch had said he would oppose the measure unless Democrats agree to his amendments favoring technology companies that seek to hire more high-skilled foreign workers.
The agreement reached today includes Hatch’s proposal to require employers to show that a U.S. worker wasn’t available only when they initially hire a foreign employee, not with each visa extension.
“I haven’t seen the final version, but if it’s done the way I want it to be done, yeah, then it would help me support the bill out of committee,” Hatch says.
Unions led by the AFL-CIO labor federation said technology companies are trying to undermine job security and opportunities for U.S. workers.
“We do not expect their endorsement of this, but we at least have worked with them and respected their input and have tried to reach an agreement that is close to the values they bring to the table,” Durbin says, referring to labor organizations.
The Judiciary Committee has adopted about 100 amendments. Reid has said he wants to bring the measure to the full Senate “as soon as it’s ready,” probably in early June.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky told reporters he was “hopeful” the Senate could pass immigration legislation, adding that Republican senators share “a view the status quo is not good.”
McConnell said he would vote to bring the bill to the floor so it could be opened up for amendments.
The Senate bill would initially raise the annual H-1B visa limit for high-skilled foreign workers to 135,000 from 85,000. Caps in future years could increase to 180,000, depending on economic conditions.
The bill also would require companies to recruit U.S. workers before hiring foreign ones. Technology companies say that invites bureaucratic scrutiny by the government and lawsuits from U.S. workers.
While Hatch may support the bill in the Judiciary Committee, he has made clear it will take more than a deal on high-skilled visas to win his backing when the measure is considered by the full Senate.
For his vote then, Hatch said lawmakers must agree to his proposed changes regarding the taxes immigrants must pay and social benefits they receive.
“They’re going to have to resolve those conflicts for me, or I will have to vote against the bill on the floor,” Hatch says.
Hatch says he wants to require immigrants who seek citizenship to pay additional taxes and to make clear that unauthorized employment can’t count toward eligibility for Social Security benefits. He is proposing a five-year waiting period before those on the path to citizenship could receive subsidies under the Affordable Care Act.
The proposals would improve the bill’s prospects for gaining the 60 votes needed in the Senate and also for passing the Republican-controlled House, Hatch says.
“If they do some of the things I think ought to be done, then I think it’s got a chance,” he says.
Durbin said the agreement reached today doesn’t include Hatch’s additional requests, though he said talks would continue.
“He’s bargaining for as many things as he can get,” Durbin says, referring to Hatch.
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