TCS Daily

Tech-friendly Senator pays price in union-friendly Michigan

By Steve Hayes - June 19, 2000 12:00 AM

How about some Osama bin Laden with your morning coffee? When readers of the Grand Rapids Press opened their newspapers on the morning of April 27, 1999, they were greeted by an advertisement with large, side-by-side photos of bin Laden, a notorious terrorist, and amiable Michigan Senator Spencer Abraham.

If the relationship between the suspected murderer and the reticent senator wasn`t immediately apparent, a question alongside the pictures helped to establish a connection. "Why is a US Senator Trying to Make it Easy for Osama bin Laden to Export Terrorism to the US?"

Abraham, who chairs the Subcommittee on Immigration in the Senate, was of course doing no such thing. What he had done was refuse to crack down on non-residents with U.S. work visas, arguing that the increased monitoring would primarily affect Canadians working legally in the United States, and especially in his home state of Michigan. What do the visas have to do with terrorists? Very little. Unless, that is, you`re trying to scare voters.

Abraham, who is of Lebanese descent, clearly upset the leaders of the group behind the ad - an organization that, despite the nature of its efforts, goes by the acronym FAIR. This year, with Abraham in a tough re-election bid against Rep. Debbie Stabenow, the Federation of American Immigration Reform has targeted Abraham for a similar reason: he is pushing to lift the cap on the number of H1-B immigrant visas the U.S. government can distribute each year. The six-year visas, used primarily by the high-tech sector to hire highly qualified and specialized workers (though curiously used for international models, as well), were arbitrarily capped this year at 115,000. That supply was exhausted by mid-March, and tech leaders are desperate for more. Soon.

In his recent testimony before the Joint Economic Committee, Bill Gates - joined by Intel Chairman Andrew Grove - voiced the nearly-unanimous concerns of industry leaders, and practically begged for more H-1Bs. "We are recruiting in the U.S. at the highest possible level," Gates explained. "Believe me, the supply is not there to fill the demand." FAIR doesn`t buy this reasoning, and to make sure people hear their side, the group launched a $700,000 media campaign targeting Abraham. This year`s ads are surely not as vitriolic as FAIR`s previous attacks on Abraham. But they have been effective. In addition to generating widespread press attention, the ads have distracted the Abraham campaign - he ran his own ads lashing Stabenow for failing to condemn the FAIR ads.

Several polls show the race even; some have Stabenow ahead. Stabenow did denounce FAIR`s tactics, but sensing a good issue in union-heavy Michigan, she may yet side with FAIR on the substance of the debate. Though she voted in favor of increasing the number of H1-Bs as a House member, Stabenow still hasn`t taken a position on the issue that has dominated the Michigan airwaves.

For an industry that by some estimates stands to lose billions of dollars without access to these specialized workers, the response to the attacks on Abraham has been rather anemic. As a consequence, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott convened a meeting in mid-May to urge the industry to support Abraham. According to a report in the Detroit News, some industry lobbyists understood Lott`s request as a not-so-subtle threat: help Abraham or the bill won`t move in the Senate.

Perhaps as a result of the proliferation of issue ads on both sides in the Michigan race, the bill may now face another threat, in the form of longtime H1-B supporter Senator John McCain. The rumblings on Capitol Hill are that McCain, who just last year sponsored a measure to lift the H1-B altogether and let "the marketplace decide," plans to tie the H1-B increase to his pet issue - campaign finance reform.

Politically, McCain hopes he can turn the H1-B increase from a crucial issue in one senate race to the determinative issue in the future of American campaigning.

That doesn`t please Lott, who gave a nanny-nanny-boo-boo response to that prospect. "I would let him explain that to the high-tech industry why he does not want to bring this up. That`s his problem, not mine." Lott is wrong. That would be Lott`s problem. And Abraham`s problem. And the tech industry`s problem. And, ultimately, the American economy`s problem.

Steve Hayes is a reporter for The Hotline, published by National Journal.

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