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Thursday, April 28, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Microsoft chief promises more dialogue on gay-rights issues

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates met with Washington's congressional delegation today, urging them to push for policies that improve worker training, relax immigration limits and increase trade with China and other countries.

As he indicated in an interview with The Seattle Times this week, he also said a controversy over gay rights caught him by surprise, adding that the company plans more dialogue to address concerns from employees and other critics.

Gates declined to comment after the closed-door meeting at the U.S. Capitol, but said he was happy to greet home-state lawmakers during an infrequent visit to Capitol Hill.

"It's good to meet with people," he said in a brief interview as he was hustled to a waiting car. "I'm not going to comment about what we discussed."

Lawmakers showed no such hesitation, saying Gates covered a wide range of topics during the nearly hour-long session, from education to trade to energy and the company's stance on gay rights.

The Redmond, Wash.-based software giant was one of the earliest companies to extend benefits to gay couples, but has been criticized in recent days for failing to support gay-rights legislation in the Washington Legislature this year.

Critics say Microsoft caved to pressure from a local pastor who threatened to launch a nationwide boycott over the issue, and tried to tiptoe away from a bill it had previously supported. The measure failed in Washington state's Senate last week by a single vote.

Asked about the controversy by Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., Gates told lawmakers that gay rights was simply not part of Microsoft's legislative agenda for the year. Gates said the company will continue to have discussions on the issue and will move to address concerns that have been raised, lawmakers said.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said she was disappointed at the way the controversy has emerged — especially given Microsoft's lengthy record in support of gay rights — but was satisfied with the Gates' answers.

"They have a huge portfolio" of issues that are important to the company and cannot be expected to push all of them at the same time, she said.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said she was reassured by Gates' promise that Microsoft was looking at ways to "revisit" its decision to take a neutral stance on the gay-rights bill it had once championed. The company has said it took that stance so it could focus on a shorter list of issues, such as computer privacy, education and transportation.

"I take him at his word," Murray said.

On other issues, Gates reiterated comments he made Wednesday, urging the Bush administration and Congress to abolish immigration limits on foreign engineers who can be hired by U.S. companies — a sensitive subject among American technology workers whose jobs are increasingly being moved overseas.

"He made a strong impression on me that they need the best-qualified workers they can find," whether they are trained in the United States or other countries, Murray said.

At a panel discussion Wednesday, Gates said the government should abolish its limit of 65,000 visas annually for overseas workers who can be hired by American companies as engineers, scientists, architects and doctors. The special "H1-B" visas are for highly trained, specialized workers.

"The whole idea of the H1-B visa thing is, don't let too many smart people come into the country," Gates said at the Library of Congress. "The thing basically doesn't make sense."

Murray said she understands his concern, but that U.S. policy must balance the needs of Microsoft and other high-tech companies with incentives to ensure that qualified American workers get and keep high-paying jobs.

"We need an educated work force, but we also want to make sure we have jobs here. We can't just bring people in" from other countries, Murray said.

Freshman Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Wash., said he was just glad to finally meet Gates, one of the richest and most influential executives in the world — and a resident of Reichert's 8th District.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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