Emergency legislation allowing foreign workers to return to jobs at crab-picking houses on Maryland's Eastern Shore cleared its last major hurdle yesterday as the House of Representatives easily approved the measure, which supporters slipped into an unrelated military spending bill.

The Senate is expected to send the whole bill to President Bush for his signature next week. That should start a process that will let hundreds of Mexican workers, mostly women, come back to the United States to spend the rest of the crab season working in seafood processing plants that are anxious to have them.

"I'm very pleased for those small businesses, and relieved that this battle is over," said Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, an Eastern Shore Republican, who helped shepherd the bill through Congress.

Maryland's seafood processors were happy about the congressional action - but said they are not ready to uncork champagne. On tiny Hoopers Island, the sliver of Dorchester County that is home to most of the shore's seafood plants, residents still don't know when the Mexicans who keep the summer economy humming will arrive.

"We've gotten all excited before, but each time, you wind up with more hurdles to go through," said Jay Newcomb of A.E. Phillips Seafood. Added seafood processor Robin Hall: "I've heard it's a done deal, but I don't want to say that. I'm sitting here with my fingers crossed and my mouth shut."

The measure approved yesterday, added to the spending bill by Maryland's Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, addresses a visa program known as H2B that has allowed 66,000 seasonal foreign workers into the country every year since 1990.

The program has been a lifeline for seafood processors, landscapers and, in some states, hotel operators who have struggled to find American workers to take low-paying jobs.

Normally, the workers would have begun arriving in Maryland by early April to pick crabs. But this year, the program's 66,000-worker national quota was reached in early January - before many Maryland businesses were allowed to apply. Only a handful of crab houses got their workers; others have wondered whether they would have to shut down for good.

Mikulski and other senators had previously tried to expand H2B limits, but those bills failed when they became mired in a larger immigration-reform discussion. This time, when the Maryland Democrat introduced the Save Our Small and Seasonal Businesses Act, she focused on emergency relief.

The bill lets workers who have previously participated in the H2B program return this year and next - giving Congress time to hammer out an immigration bill while solving the current crisis. It also tightens anti-fraud rules and divides the visas among West and East Coast states.

Though the Senate passed the H2B amendment last month by an overwhelming majority of 94-6, those monitoring the legislation expected a rougher ride in the House, which is known for being tough on immigration. Several members didn't want any provisions on the bill that weren't germane to war funding.

But Gilchrest said many members from both parties supported the amendment after hearing from suffering small businesses in their home states. The congressman said he appealed to House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who said they would not try to remove the provision from the larger war bill.

"Today we knew that we were at the bottom of the Ferris wheel and we were getting off on the chair there, on sturdy ground," Gilchrest said. "There was a lot of discussion beforehand, and all the issues were resolved."

For months, owners of Maryland's crab-picking houses have fielded calls from worried Mexican employees, many of whom can't find work in their poverty-stricken home states. They earn as much as $80 a day during the five or six months they spend in the United States cleaning crabs - far more than the $9 a day they net shaping corn for tamales, which is often the only available job back home.

Until recently, plant owner Virgil "Sonny" Ruark couldn't be too encouraging. But this week, when he received a call from longtime employee Trinidad Tovar Tovar of Palomas, he could finally offer some hope.

"I told her to sit tight, and maybe we could get them here by early June," said Ruark, whose company needs about 16 workers. "That's probably a little optimistic, but she wanted to hear some good news."

So far, the delay in the workers' arrival hasn't hurt the processors too much - water temperatures have been colder than usual for this time of year, and there have been few crabs. But substantial crab harvests are likely to begin soon - and the workers aren't likely to be here yet. Even if the president signs the bill as expected next week, the workers probably won't be able to enter the country for at least a month.

Once the bill becomes law, a three-part process begins.

First, the Department of Homeland Security needs to process all of the applications. Then, the workers need to go to U.S. consulates in their country for the visas. Finally, the workers need to arrange transportation to the United States.

Normally, the process is staggered, based on when different industries in different states need their workers. But this year, the applications will likely come all at once.

Shawn Saucier, spokesman for citizenship and immigration services at the Department of Homeland Security, declined yesterday to discuss specific steps the agency was taking to handle the influx. But he said the staff was ready to expedite processing once the bill passed.

For some industries, the delay won't be a huge problem. Robert Laltoo, who owns a Vermont inn as well as a company that matches up H2B workers with prospective employers, said many businesses that usually rely on the visas have made other arrangements. Those that haven't will probably get their workers by late June or early July - still in time for New England's peak tourism season.

"Better late than never. I don't think it's going to be too bad," Laltoo said.

But Juan del Alamo, whose Charlottesville, Va., company acts as a facilitator in bringing workers from Mexico to Maryland's seafood plants, isn't so confident. He estimates the consulate in Monterrey, Mexico, can process about 500 applications a day. Though May is a slow month, June is busy with agricultural visa applications, which could further slow the process.

Del Alamo expects that the companies he works with will all send in their applications by express mail to Homeland Security as soon as they're able, and they'll all pay the $1,000 fee to expedite their applications.

"They're going to go from one day of none to one day of many applications coming in," he said. "And how are they going to do it? That's been the question we've been asking them for months. And they don't have a good answer."

Sun staff writer Gwyneth K. Shaw contributed to this article.