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House rejects bill to boost foreign STEM students in US, for now

After the election, a lame-duck Congress is likely to revisit a bill to boost the number of visas for foreign students seeking advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) in the US.

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Behind a seemingly run-of-the-mill partisan defeat of a House bill addressing a thorny issue of immigration policy on Thursday lies the glimmer of bipartisan compromise.

The specific issue Thursday was a bump in the number of US visas for foreign students seeking advanced degrees in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) at top American universities. The STEM Jobs Act, introduced by Rep. Lamar Smith (R) of Texas, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, offered a tradeoff: 55,000 additional visas for the STEM students in return for the elimination of 55,000 annual visas offered by the visa lottery (or diversity visa) program. The latter, dating from the early 1990s, brings immigrants to the US from countries underrepresented through other immigration programs.

The bill's aim was no net increase to immigration levels, but a potential boost to the US brain trust and the high-tech industry seeking STEM skills in the workforce.

In the end, 30 Democrats voted with all but five Republicans in favor of the bill, bringing the "yeas" to 257. But because Republicans brought the bill to the floor under a special consideration that suspends usual House rules, the measure needed approval of two-thirds of the members present, or 274 votes, to pass. Democratic aides say Republicans pursued that path to win political points with the high-tech industry lobby, which is eager for the measure to pass, and to paint Democrats as out of touch with the needs of a modern economy.

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