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In the final tally, just eight Republicans joined 208 Democrats in voting for the bill, while 38 Democrats joined 160 Republicans in opposing it. Some Democrats from conservative districts who did vote for the measure are either retiring or recently lost re-election bids, and likely felt more free to support the bill knowing they wouldn’t have to face voters again.

The Senate had also been scheduled to act Wednesday, but Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada delayed the vote, saying he had promised House Democrats they could go first - partly to see whether the House vote could build momentum to influence senators.

Mr. Reid, who won a tough re-election battle last month based partly on the strength of Hispanic voters’ support, had promised during the campaign to force a vote on the Dream Act.

Both the House and Senate versions would grant conditional legal status to illegal immigrants who are under 30 years of age, were brought to the U.S. before they were 16, who have lived in the U.S. continuously for at least five years. They are expected to either be attending or to have graduated from high school, or to have acquired a GED certificate.

Those who go on to college or to serve in the military would be put on a long-term path to citizenship.

The Congressional Budget Office said the House’s version would grant legal status to 700,000 people by 2020, while Senate bill would legalize 1.1 million immigrants — or about half the number some outside groups said could be eligible.

Analysts estimate there are about 11 million illegal immigrants in the country — a number that has declined over the last two years as jobs have dried up in the slumping economy, and as the government has stepped up its enforcement efforts.

Republicans have argued that Congress should focus on securing the borders before it takes up any legalization, but Democrats say all aspects of immigration need to be tackled at the same time, in what they have labeled “comprehensive immigration reform.”

In a boost for the bills, CBO said legalization would actually be a net benefit to the U.S. Treasury by bringing workers into the official economy, where they and their employers would pay full taxes.