Both the House of Representatives and the Senate had passed earlier versions of the bill, and a compromise with the White House had been worked out last month. But a small number of senators were able to block a vote on the bill late Friday, killing chance of its passage this year.
Under current law, 65,000 H-1B visas are granted annually to noncitizen computer programmers and other highly skilled professionals to work in the United States for up to six years. The bill would have nearly doubled that, to 115,000 for the next two years, and to 107,500 in the third year. After that, the level would drop back to 65,000.
The bill's chief Senate sponsor, Republican Sen. Spencer Abraham of Michigan said the decision could hurt the high-tech industry and academic institutions.
"This is a severe problem and it is especially severe at this time," said Abraham, noting that the industry is trying to resolve the millennium bug, which may cause some computer systems to fail when internal clocks do not recognize the year 2000.
Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin, an opponent of the bill, said he did not think there was a shortage of high-tech American workers at this time, but was willing to take another look at the issue next year.
"Right now it does not appear that the demand is there that they have anticipated," Harkin said.
Abraham disagreed, saying the United States cannot fill its 130,000 new information jobs a year without importing foreign workers.
High-tech companies had lobbied to increase the cap on foreign workers. Some lawmakers with ties to organized labor opposed it, both because they said it could hurt American workers and because they feared the foreign workers could be exploited.