The U.S. Senate has voted 74 to 24 to cut in half the number of foreign workers who could come to the United States on temporary visas as part of a sweeping immigration reform bill. VOA's Deborah Tate reports from Capitol Hill.

The Senate voted to reduce the number of guest worker visas that would be issued each year to 200,000 from 400,000, which was initially proposed in a compromise agreement reached by a group of Democratic and Republican senators and the White House last week.

Senator Jeff Bingaman, a New Mexico Democrat, is the amendment's sponsor:

"The amendment that I am offering and my cosponsors are offering tries to restrict the size of the program until we find out how it is working, until we figure out whether or not this makes sense," said Jeff Bingaman.

Under the guest worker proposal, two-year visas would be renewable for up to three times, but only after workers return to their home countries for a year each time.

Some in the Democratic majority in the Senate are critical of the guest worker plan, saying it would depress wages of U.S. workers and create an underclass of poorly paid migrants who would be denied an opportunity to become U.S. citizens.

A proposal to strip the immigration bill of the guest worker program failed in the Senate Tuesday, but a number of other Democratic-sponsored amendments aimed at further limiting the program are expected to be introduced over the course of the debate on the bill.

Supporters of the program - including President Bush - say it is a crucial component of immigration reform that would, along with sanctions on employers who hire undocumented workers, reduce the incentive for migrants to cross borders illegally to work.

Besides the guest worker program, the overall bill also includes measures to deal with the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants already in the United States. It would grant undocumented workers legal status to live and work in the United States once they obtain a four-year, renewable "Z" visa. Such a visa would allow holders to get on a path toward permanent residency and possible citizenship after meeting certain conditions, including paying fines and learning English.

In addition, the immigration reform bill includes provisions to tighten border security.

The Senate is not expected to vote on the overall legislation until next month.