The move by the Senate Judiciary Committee comes as high-tech firms and other businesses complain that, for the third year in a row, they have already met the annual cap on the popular H1-B visas just 20 days into the government's 2005-06 fiscal year that began Oct. 1.
"Without access to today's most creative minds worldwide, American businesses will be forced to seek out other business opportunities in other parts of the world," Rhett Dawson, president of the Information Technology Industry Council, wrote to the Senate Judiciary Committee this month.
Congress capped H-1B visas at 65,000 per year in 2004.
Critics contend the visas give foreigners high-level jobs that should go to American workers. But increasing their number and the fees for them enabled the Judiciary Committee's proposal to reach savings of $300 million over five years mandated by this year's budget agreement.
"In many cases we need these workers," said committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa.
Specter wanted to allow 60,000 more visas per year and raise the current fee of $3,185 for a six-year visa by $500. The fees are paid by employers.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and others opposed adding so many more visas. "What I don't want to see is Americans lose jobs," Feinstein said.
The committee approved a Feinstein amendment allowing 30,000 more H-1B visas per year, and increasing fees by $500. Feinstein's amendment would also increase fees on another kind of visa, the L-1, which companies use to transfer workers they already employ in foreign countries to the United States. The fee on L-1 visas, now $685, would rise by $750.
Total savings from the plan were still being calculated but aides said it should top $110 million per year.
House Judiciary Committee has proposed increasing fees on L-1 visas by $1,500 — and making no change to H-1B visas — to reach its budget goal. Differences between House and Senate versions still have to be resolved.