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.
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.
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.
On Wednesday, House Republicans will subject the Senate bill to scrutiny. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, the Virginia Republican who called the hearing, said the key question for him is whether the bill can avoid the mistakes of the 1986 amnesty, which legalized millions of immigrants but failed to secure the borders or crack down on businesses that hire illegal immigrants.
"In any immigration reform proposal, we must make sure that the president can't unilaterally 'turn-off' the federal enforcement of our immigration laws," Mr. Goodlatte said.
During five days of voting, the committee rejected a series of amendments designed to strengthen border security requirements and to delay legalization until after that is completed.
Backers said they were trying to balance all sides of security and that bringing illegal immigrants out of the shadows is a key component.
Labor, business balance
In Tuesday's fight over high-tech workers, the committee voted to nearly double the number of visas available under the H-1B program, with the possibility of another expansion depending on the job market.
Democrats said that was a major concession but was an acceptable price for winning Mr. Hatch's support for the bill — an indication of just how crucial every vote will be when the legislation reaches the Senate floor.
"We hope that this is a good-faith effort on both of our parts to bring support for this bill to pass," Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat and one of the "Gang of Eight" senators who wrote the bill, told Mr. Hatch. "We've made those concessions to win your support. We need your support."
Mr. Hatch was circumspect. He voted for the bill in committee but said he needed to see more changes when it reaches the Senate floor.
The move toward Mr. Hatch's direction threatens to split support among Democrats. Sen. Al Franken, Minnesota Democrat, said he will have to check with labor unions to see how they feel about the bill.
The split between labor unions and business groups has been the hidden land mine in the immigration debate for years. The schism helped bring down the bill when the Senate debated the issue in 2007.
Tuesday's debate dented several key claims made by the bill's authors.
In one instance, senators acknowledged that their bill doesn't require illegal immigrants to pay all back taxes they owe, just the outstanding bills the Internal Revenue Service knows about.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat and the bill's chief sponsor, said illegal immigrants by definition are living in the shadows, and making them reconstruct their pay history could be tough and could keep many from legalization.
"We all realize that people did wrong things. And the goal is to set this right by letting those in the shadows come out," Mr. Schumer said as the committee plowed through amendments to the 867-page bill. "The worry I have here is that by being as rigid ... as this amendment is, that it will delay and prevent many, many people from coming out of the shadows."
The debate took a decidedly combative tone Tuesday afternoon when Sen. Cruz offered two amendments: One to prevent newly legalized immigrants from getting any public benefits, and another to eliminate the bill's path to citizenship, giving illegal immigrants a chance at legal status and even green cards, but never a shot at full citizenship.
"What kind of America are you thinking about, Sen. Cruz?" Sen. Durbin challenged. Mr. Durbin said he received government funding to go to college and that he doesn't want to deny such benefits to immigrants.
The Illinois Democrat said preventing illegal immigrants from getting citizenship was also a betrayal of American values.
Mr. Cruz bristled, saying he had offered several amendments to expand legal immigration, and it was Democrats who rejected that, which he said was hypocritical.
He also said it was unfair for Democrats to make citizenship rights a deal-breaker.
"Tying immigration reform to a path to citizenship is not a strategy to pass the bill. It's a strategy to create partisan division," the freshman Republican said.
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