By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. lawmakers took a break from bitter debate over government spending to save a program granting special visas to civilian interpreters who risked their lives to work for the American military in Iraq, sending it to the White House on Thursday for President Barack Obama's signature.
The House of Representatives and the Senate passed by unanimous voice votes a measure that extended the Iraqi Special Immigrant Visa program for three months. Lawmakers said they expected Obama would sign the extension into law shortly.
The five-year-old visa plan expired at midnight on Monday, September 30, when the fiscal year ended, threatening to halt processing of visas for thousands of Iraqis who worked as interpreters, or in other capacities, for U.S. forces during the 8-1/2-year war.
The State Department has not released exact numbers, but activists and lawmakers said anywhere from 2,000 to 3,500 visa applications are believed to be in the pipeline waiting for approval.
Many of the Iraqis involved in the program have said they fear for their lives amid mounting violence in their country, where some consider them traitors for having helped U.S. forces.
It had looked like the plan would get lost amid the federal budget dispute between Republicans and Democrats, which led to the government shutdown, also at midnight on Monday.
But congressional leaders threw their weight behind a bipartisan push to extend the program, at least long enough for lawmakers to write more permanent legislation.
The Senate passed the extension on Monday night and the House approved it on Wednesday night, sending it back for the Senate's final approval on Thursday.
"These are the interpreters, the guides, drivers, people who performed a myriad of functions that were essential for American operations," said Representative Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat who introduced the first legislation on the program six years ago.
"Last night, the United States sent a signal that we are not going to leave them behind," he said on the House floor.
Aides said members in both the House and Senate plan to write a provision into a defense authorization bill later this year for a longer extension of the visa plan for Iraqis as well as a similar scheme for Afghan civilians that is due to expire next year.
Advocates said they also want to improve the plans, especially to get the visas processed more quickly for the civilian workers and their families.
The visa approval process, which was meant to take six weeks, can last for years, forcing many former interpreters to go into hiding while they wait.
(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; editing by Christopher Wilson)