Bill to overhaul visa system fails in House; 30 Democrats defect

The House on Thursday voted down a Republican bill that would reallocate thousands of U.S. visas to foreign nationals with advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering or math, known as STEM skills.

While Republicans won a clear majority, they called it up under a suspension of House rules, which required a two-thirds majority for passage. As a result, the House failed to pass the bill despite the 257-158 vote that saw 30 Democrats vote with Republicans.

GOP leaders have occasionally called up bills under suspension of the rules when they know they do not have the support of two-thirds of the House. But the move is rare, and seems to be reserved for bills that they want to have a vote on for political reasons, but don't necessarily want to pass.

For example, the House in July called up a bill under suspension to criminalize abortions in Washington, D.C., which was known to be opposed by most Democrats. Republicans went ahead with the vote anyway, and it failed 220-154.

ADVERTISEMENT
In this case, Democrats were known to oppose the visa bill, H.R. 6429, because it would eliminate a diversity visa program that allocates 55,000 visas in a lottery system to countries with low rates of emigration to the United States. The STEM Jobs Act takes those 55,000 visas and funnels them to foreign nationals with STEM degrees, a change the GOP says would have a more dramatic impact on U.S. job creation.

"This bill makes our immigration system smarter by admitting those who have the education and skills America needs," House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) argued. "STEM visas are substituted for diversity visas, which invite fraud and pose a security risk."

But Democrats said the bill seems designed to limit immigration.

"Although this bill ostensibly seeks to increase STEM visas, it appears to have another, in my opinion, more sinister purpose, to actually reduce legal immigration levels," Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) said. She said aside from eliminating the diversity visa program, it also prevents unused STEM visas to be funneled back to other visa categories after 2014.

"Supporters of legal immigration would not have killed one immigration program to benefit another, nor would they agree to a Grover Norquist-style 'no new immigration' pledge that will continue to strangle our immigration system for years to come," Lofgren said. "Agreeing to zero-sum rules now means never helping the almost five million legal immigrants currently stuck in backlogs."

Democrats also argued that the bill would allow visas to be granted to foreign nationals with degrees from for-profit schools, which some have criticized as not having the same standards as other schools.

During the debate, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) asked Republicans to essentially adopt a Democratic visa proposal, but Smith repeated that the diversity visa system should be replaced.

"The diversity visa invites fraud, and absolutely means that we would have a security risk if we were to continue it," he said.

Smith and other Republicans, including Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), were unapologetic about pushing to end the diversity visa program, and said job creation should be the top priority.

"The STEM Jobs Act we are voting on today is part of our commitment to help small businesses, to help them create jobs by ensuring the top foreign students in American universities have the opportunity to launch or work for American businesses," Cantor said. "The bipartisan STEM Jobs Act takes 55,000 visas currently awarded based on a lottery, and instead awards them to foreign graduates of U.S. universities with advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics."

While it is rare for Republicans call up a suspension bill that fails, it happened again moments after the visa bill failed. The House called up H.R. 5987, which would create a Manhattan Project national park.

The House voted 237-180 in favor of the bill, again not enough for the two-thirds majority vote.

— This story was updated at 5:16 p.m.