H-1B politics shifts to backroom as vote nears

Hatch buys time in his effort to reduce restrictions on H-1B use

WASHINGTON -- High-tech's leading advocate in the immigration bill fight, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), has bought himself some time, perhaps until Tuesday, to try get the immigration bill changed to the liking of the tech industry.

Negotiations are underway to come up with a compromise where Hatch gets a block of amendments and, in return, U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), gets Hatch's support for the entire immigration bill, according to sources.

Schumer is one of the leaders of the so-called "gang of eight," the bipartisan group that developed the comprehensive immigration bill.

If Hatch had enough votes on the Senate Judiciary Committee members for his amendments today, he could have asked for a vote. But he didn't have the votes.

Hatch faces a big obstacle. Judiciary committee members have been holding firm against adding "deal breaking" amendments to the gang of eight's comprehensive immigration bill. This committee is now considering some 300 amendments to the bill.

Hatch believes high-tech industry support is critical to Senate passage of a comprehensive immigration bill.

Whether the gang of eight needs Hatch to win Senate adoption of its bill is a bigger question. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a leader of Republican support for immigration reform, told the congressional newspaper, The Hill, that Hatch's support "would be a huge asset."

Schumer is giving Hatch some room, saying on Thursday that he wants to bring up the Utah Republican's amendments next week.

"We are working very hard to negotiate an agreement," said Schumer, at the committee's meeting Thursday.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the committee chairman, expressed frustration. "At some point we have to vote on these things."

Whether Hatch and Schumer can agree to amendments that aren't "deal breaking" remains to be seen. But so far, the committee's immigration reform supporters have held out against amendments they feel could shatter the immigration alliance.

On Tuesday, an introduced by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) was rejected because it was seen as a deal breaker. It would have required a "good faith" effort by all employers to hire a U.S. worker before taking on an H-1B worker.

Grassley's amendment failed, in part, to preserve the agreement reached by the gang of eight.

Hatch's toughest opponent in negotiations may be Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), another member of the gang of eight, who has co-sponsored with Grassley legislation seeking H-1B restrictions.

In general, Hatch wants to reduce restrictions on the employers of hiring workers with H-1B- and L-1 visas.

One of his amendments would eliminate an obligation on all employers, proposed in the comprehensive immigration bill, to attest that they worked to hire an "equally qualified" U.S. worker prior to hiring an H-1B worker. The amendment would limit that requirement to H-1B dependent companies, or those with 15% or more of their workforce holding H-1B visas.

In a letter sent on Thursday to the committee, Marc Apter, president of IEEE-USA. voiced opposition to the Hatch proposals.

"Every part of this package has the same purpose -- to make it easier for employers to fire Americans and replace them with temporary foreign workers," wrote Apter of Hatch's amendments.

The IEEE-USA, a professional group for engineers, has opposed expanding the H-1B program, but supports permanent residency for STEM graduates.

The committee recessed early Thursday afternoon and will resume negotiations on its amendments on Monday.

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov, or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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