The Senate Judiciary Committee voted Monday to allow illegal immigrants who get legal status to begin collecting tax-welfare payments, as the panel spent a fourth day working through amendments to the massive immigration bill and party-line splits began to emerge.
In one major change, the committee voted 17-1 to make a third drunken-driving conviction a deportable offense for the newly legalized immigrants if at least one of those offenses occurs after they are approved for legal status.
But immigrant-rights groups called that a rollback of due-process rights for the immigrants and said a drunken-driving incident shouldn't cost someone a chance at citizenship.
"We cannot and will not support hard-line proposals that take away discretion and limit an individual's ability to pursue the pathway to citizenship," said Paromita Shah, associate director of the National Lawyers Guild's National Immigration Project.
Overall, the committee continued to maintain the delicate balance struck by the "Gang of Eight" senators who negotiated the 867-page bill: Quick legal status for illegal immigrants, but delaying citizenship rights until after the administration spends more money on border security, puts in place a new electronic verification system to check workers' status, and enacts an entry-exit system to check visas at airports and seaports.
In previous days' action, two Republican members of the Gang of Eight — Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Jeff Flake of Arizona — joined with Democrats to block a series of GOP amendments to stiffen the bill's security.
But on Monday, the two Republicans sided with their party colleagues on key questions on giving illegal immigrants public benefits.
The 10 Democrats on the committee still outnumber the newly unified Republicans, but the votes signaled tough fights ahead on the Senate floor.
In one vote, Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican, tried to prevent anyone but citizens and green-card holders from being able to claim the Earned Income Tax Credit, which uses the tax code to transfer money to the poor.
But Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, said that would deny the tax credit not only to legalized immigrants but also refugees, asylum-seekers and other legal workers.
And Sen. Mazie K. Hirono, Hawaii Democrat, said denying the tax credit to legalized immigrants would hurt their children, many of whom are U.S. citizens.
The committee avoided what likely would have been a bitter fight over guns and whether those on the government's terrorist watch list should be allowed to buy firearms when Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, Rhode Island Democrat, withdrew his amendment.
"Evidently we think it's OK for people on the terrorist watch list to buy a gun," Mr. Whitehouse said.
He said he would try again later when the bill comes to the Senate floor.
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