Immigration reform bill clears committee hurdles, heads to full Senate

The Senate immigration bill cleared the Judiciary Committee on a bipartisan vote Tuesday night, ducking — for now — big fights on guns, gay rights and how broadly the legalization is drawn, and leaving the 867-page overhaul mostly unscathed by conservative attacks.

On the fifth day of committee voting, the bill tilted toward pro-business senators after a pivotal Republican, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, persuaded colleagues to grant high-tech companies more visas for foreign workers and to reduce the hurdles for them to do so.


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The bill dodged a major land mine when the Senate’s senior Democrat, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, said he would not force a vote overextending immigration rights to same-sex partners of Americans.

That helped preserve the fragile coalition that has pulled immigration back to the forefront of the congressional agenda.

“You’ve got me on immigration; you don’t have me on marriage,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and one of the eight senators who wrote the bill and who said he would have had to back out if Mr. Leahy’s proposal had passed. “If you want to keep me on immigration, let’s stay on immigration.”

Minutes after Mr. Leahy withdrew his amendment — the last of 171 debated over five sessions — the committee approved the bill on a 13-5 vote, drawing chants of “Yes, we can” and its Spanish version, “Si se puede” from the committee’s audience.

“This is not the bill I would have drafted,” Mr. Leahy said, though he added that it wouldn’t stop him from supporting the compromise. “All of us know our immigration system is not working as it is now, and that is why I will vote for this bill — because of all the work that has gone into this.”

Three Republicans — Mr. Graham, Mr. Hatch and Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona — joined all 10 Democrats in support of the bill.


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Even several of the Republican opponents said they would not filibuster to block the bill from coming to the Senate floor, signaling that there will be a full debate. The Republican senators voting no were Iowa’s Chuck Grassley, Utah’s Mike Lee, Alabama’s Jeff Sessions and Ted Cruz and John Cornyn of Texas.

President Obama, who has made immigration reform one of his top second-term priorities, praised the panel’s work and urged the full Senate to pass the bill.

Granting legal status

The crux of the bill is a deal to grant illegal immigrants quick legal status but to withhold a full pathway to citizenship until after the Homeland Security Department spends more money on border security, creates a mandatory electronic verification system to check workers’ legal status, and begins to check visitors coming and going at airports and seaports.

The bill also rewrites the legal immigration system, including a carefully crafted balance between businesses and labor unions over how to handle guest workers.

The bill now moves to the Senate floor, likely next month, where it faces another series of bruising votes.

Meanwhile, House lawmakers are moving on a separate track. A group of bipartisan negotiators struck a deal on a different overhaul, but Republicans who control the chamber also are writing piecemeal bills and preparing to send them through the committee process.

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