The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee introduced amendments Tuesday to grant gay couples the same immigration rights as other married couples, setting up a key hurdle for the immigration bill.
Amendments were due Tuesday if they were to be part of the debate that begins Thursday in the Judiciary Committee. The dozens of changes filed by senators signal a bloody fight ahead as some Democrats seek to make the bill more generous, some Republicans seek a deeper crackdown, and the legislation’s sponsors try to hold a tenuous center.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican who has taken the lead in fighting to stop the bill, introduced 49 amendments, including limiting the overall level of legal immigration allowed under the bill, or requiring the full 700 miles of reinforced fencing Congress called for back in 2006, but which was only partially built.
And Sen. Chuck Grassley, the ranking Republican on the committee, introduced 77 amendments.
The gay rights fight already is getting attention as a major sticking point because it will put majority Democrats on the spot.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, the committee chairman, introduced two different versions: One would apply to “permanent partners,” which critics said could invite widespread fraud. The other would only apply to same-sex couples who are legally married, which given the laws in various states would dramatically limit who could qualify.
“For immigration reform to be truly comprehensive, it must include protections for all families,” the Vermont Democrat said. “We must end the discrimination that gay and lesbian families face in our immigration law.”
His amendment, though, will test Democrats who want to see a bill pass but also want to expand it.
The eight senators — four Democrats and four Republicans — who wrote the bill now must decide how they will approach the amendments.
In 2007, the last time the Senate debated a bill, the sponsors had a deal to oppose all major amendments and to try to keep the basic agreement intact. But that tactic failed as Democrats attached an amendment limiting the size of a future guest-worker program. The bill collapsed under opposition from both ends of the political spectrum.
As of Tuesday evening, the Judiciary Committee had posted 130 amendments from six members of the committee — and that didn’t include Mr. Sessions’ 49 amendments, nor those of 11 other committee members.
The sheer weight of those amendments presages a long fight in committee before the bill even reaches the floor.
Republicans still felt the entire debate was rushed, given that the final version of the main 867-page bill was introduced just last week.
“Unfortunately, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee have had less time to review this nearly 1,000-page bill than the special interests who wrote it behind closed doors,” Mr. Sessions said.
He said the bill falls short of the promises its sponsors made to build a border fence, to have illegal immigrants pay back taxes and to prevent them from gaining public benefits.
The crux of the Senate bill is a deal to offer illegal immigrants quick legal status, but to withhold a full pathway to citizenship until the Homeland Security Department makes strides on border security and interior enforcement.