WASHINGTON — A divided House of Representatives voted Friday to ease visa restrictions for a limited pool of foreign workers, previewing a fight over how far Congress should go in changing the country’s immigration laws.
Leaders of both parties believe the issue will be one of the biggest they will face after the new Congress convenes in January, pitting lawmakers who want a more sweeping immigration overhaul against those who think an incremental approach stands the best chance of passing both houses.
The bill the House approved by a vote of 245 to 139 — with just 27 Democrats supporting it — stands little chance of advancing in the Senate, where Democrats have control. And the White House has come out in opposition to the bill, calling it too “narrowly tailored" and incompatible with President Barack Obama’s vision for a more comprehensive approach.
Some Republicans are eager to move forward with legislation that would tighten border controls but also start paving a path to citizenship for some of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants now in the United States, a move that could help reverse impressions among Hispanics that the party is hostile to immigrants. But many are also wary of the furor that could arise among conservative voters over any perceived softness on those who are here illegally.
Some leading Republicans have become more vocal about their desire to see immigration legislation pass, albeit in a nuanced fashion. Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the House majority leader, published an op-ed article in multiple newspapers this week making an economic argument to pass the House bill.
“Entrepreneurship and job creation won’t kick into high gear until businesses have the workers they need to drive growth and innovation," he wrote, “and immigrants have always been a key part of the equation."
The House bill, which would provide for 55,000 visas for foreign graduates of U.S. universities who have doctoral and master’s degrees in science, technology, engineering or mathematics, was an attempt to reconcile the concerns within the party. And some Republicans acknowledged its shortcomings.
“It is not the panacea," said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, who represents a stretch of South Florida west of Miami. “It does not solve all the problems. But it takes a huge step."
Businesses, particularly technology and software companies, had pushed for the legislation as a way to help address the shortage of skilled American workers.