Senate Immigration Bill Clears Committee in Bipartisan Vote

Ten Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee joined with three Republicans in support of a sweeping deal that will go to the floor in June.

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J. Scott Applewhite / AP

From right: Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy confers with Senators Chuck Schumer and Chuck Grassley as the Senate Judiciary Committee assembles to work on a landmark immigration bill, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on May 20, 2013.

The Senate committee debating a landmark immigration bill approved the bipartisan measure on Tuesday night, voting 13 to 5 to send the amended package to the floor.

Ten Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee joined with three Republicans, including two of the four GOP authors of the bill, in support of a sweeping deal that would open a path to citizenship for some 11 million undocumented immigrants, beef up border security and refashion the clunky U.S. immigration system.

The decision came after five long days of debate, during which the committee considered scores of amendments to a deal crafted last winter by eight Democrats and Republicans. The alliance proved enduring. Members on the committee kept the core of the bill intact by banding together to parry dozens of proposed changes that would have stripped key provisions such as a pathway to citizenship or introduced so-called “poison pills” that would have hampered its chances of winning approval on the Senate floor.

The final day of the markup process was the most dramatic. Just after 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy — who presided over a transparent and equitable process as chairman of the committee — introduced an anxiously anticipated amendment that would have given gay Americans the right to sponsor their foreign-born partners for green cards, as heterosexuals are able to do.

“I do not believe we should ask Americans to choose between the love of their life and love of their country,” Leahy said as he introduced the controversial proposal. Republican members of the Gang of Eight, who are risking the ire of their constituents by backing a sweeping immigration overhaul, warned that the amendment would unravel the whole deal.  Senator Lindsey Graham called it “a bridge too far.”

To avoid jeopardizing the fate of the bill, several Democrats on the committee chose to sacrifice their beliefs to save it. In a decision that pitted ideology against their desire to finish the first major rewrite of U.S. immigration law in a generation, Democrats bowed, one by one, to the political reality that Republicans would bolt if the amendment was passed. “I cannot support this amendment if it will bring down the bill,” said New York Democrat Chuck Schumer, one of the bill’s authors, who called the decision “excruciatingly difficult.” Several other Democrats who also support gay rights lined up against the amendment as well.

In a poignant moment, Leahy acknowledged defeat “with a heavy heart,” opting not to call for a vote on the proposal “as a result of my conclusion that Republicans will kill this vital legislation if this anti-discrimination amendment is added.”

The decision capped a frenetic day which also saw Republican Orrin Hatch win a last-minute compromise that boosts allotted visas for high-tech workers, a change that had been sought by a passel of technology companies. The concession was enough to earn a yea vote from Hatch, who had been seen as the only swing vote on the committee.

The full Senate is expected to take up the bill in June, after a recess next week. Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell told reporters Tuesday he would not block the measure from consideration and praised the bipartisan group for its work.

President Obama issued a statement Tuesday night praising the Gang of Eight for their work. “None of the Committee members got everything they wanted, and neither did I, but in the end, we all owe it to the American people to get the best possible result over the finish line,” Obama said.

The authors of the bill have said they hope to win a strong majority of 70 votes in the Senate. While the measure is likely to have the 60 votes required to overcome a potential Republican filibuster, its prospects are still uncertain in the Republican-controlled House. So far the bill’s supporters have deftly maneuvered around every obstacle they have encountered, but they still face a tough road ahead.

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