In one of their last acts before going home to campaign, House Republicans will pass a bill today that would increase the level of high-skill immigrants allowed to stay in the country. It would expand by 55,000 the visas granted to foreign graduates of US colleges and universities in what are known as the STEM disciplines: science, technology, engineering and math. This fits with a key part of Mitt Romney’s immigration agenda, which he expressed in a roundtable on Univision last night. He said that any diploma to a foreign student for a high-skill field like this “should come with a green card.”

However, the Republican bill, authored by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, would not create one new net immigration visa. The 55,000 visas for STEM graduates would come out of the US Diversity Visa program. Also known as the Visa Lottery, the Diversity Visa program gives legal visas to foreigners from low-density immigration countries. Over half of the visas in recent years have gone to people from African countries. So this would be a zero-sum game; the visas granted in the STEM program would be taken from the Diversity Visa program. And that program helps lots of immigrants get to America legally, and access lots of jobs where there are needs, like in skilled labor positions, which are also as critical as the skilled positions in science, math and engineering.

Congressman Luis Gutierrez (D-IL), a leading voice on immigration matters in the House, responded that he would like to see STEM visas increase by the amount prescribed in the Smith bill, but not at the expense of other immigration programs. “STEM visas have a lot of merit and we should increase them,” Gutierrez said in a statement. “Republicans are only willing to increase legal immigration for immigrants they want by eliminating legal immigration for immigrants they don’t want.”

Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), a member of the House Judiciary Committee, has introduced a companion bill that would cleanly increase the STEM visas by 50,000, without the concurrent drop to other visa programs. Lofgren’s bill also restricts the use of STEM visas to non-profit universities. Chuck Schumer has a companion bill to this in the Senate.

The bill likely to pass, the Smith bill, gives Republicans wary of their vulnerabilities on immigration something to say on the campaign trail. The zero-sum diminishing of immigration visas in the bill probably won’t get discussed in those soundbites.

College administrators hope that this sets up well for some compromise bill next year. For now, it’s more of a talking point.