House Republicans voted Friday to pass a bill that would make it easier for foreign-born students with advanced degrees from U.S. universities to stay in the country.
The Stem Act, which stands for science, technology, engineering, and math, aims to reverse what some have called the "brain drain."
Republicans largely shunned by Hispanic voters and other minorities in the November elections used Friday's 245-139 vote for the STEM Jobs Act to show they have softened their hardline immigration policies.
GOP leaders also added a provision making it easier for immigrants working in the country legally to bring their spouses and children to the United States while they wait for their visa applications to be approved.
Typically, family members now wait more than two years to be reunited. About 80,000 such family based visas are issued every year.
But the partisan bickering surrounding the STEM bill signaled how hard it likely will be to pass more far-reaching immigration legislation.
Most Democrats balked at what they called the Republicans' "zero sum game" where there is no increase in the number of green cards offered.
The elimination of the Diversity Visa Lottery Program is a "slap in the face to the core value and the position of immigrants to the United States," said Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., a leader on immigration policy with the Hispanic Caucus.
"If you support this bill, then you are saying that one type of immigrant is better than the other," he said.
The White House, in a statement opposing the GOP-crafted bill, said it was encouraged that Congress "appears to be ready to begin serious debate on the need to fix our broken immigration system."
But it said the administration does not support "narrowly tailored proposals" that do not meet long-term objectives of achieving comprehensive reform.
That comprehensive approach includes dealing with the young people brought into the country illegally, establishing a solution for agriculture workers, creating an effective border enforcement system and worker verification program, and deciding by what means those living in the country illegally can attain legal status.
The Democratic-controlled Senate is seen as likely to ignore the House STEM bill in the waning days of the current congressional session.