A sweeping overhaul of the US immigration system took a major step toward viability on Tuesday when a Senate panel gave bipartisan approval to a landmark bill offering a path to citizenship for millions.
The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the contentious and potentially historic legislation by a 13-5 vote, following weeks of marathon hearings and meetings to consider more than 200 amendments.
The bill emerged with its core mostly intact, including requirements for major advances in border security, visa programmes for high- and low-skilled workers, and expansion of a comprehensive e-verify system for employers.
It needs 60 votes to pass the 100-seat Senate, and would then head to the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, where its fate is uncertain and where lawmakers are drawing up their own immigration legislation.
“We’ve got a ways to go but we will get there,” exuberant Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer, one of four Democrats and four Republicans to craft the huge bill, said after the bipartisan vote.
The legislation, which would legalise more than 11 million undocumented people currently in the shadows and set most of them on a 13-year path to citizenship, is now set for a debate showdown on the Senate floor in June.
President Barack Obama cheered the vote and urged lawmakers to put partisanship aside in order to help it clear the Senate.
“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,” the president said in a statement after what was a rare victory for him in recent weeks.
An elated committee chairman Senator Patrick Leahy, who shepherded the complicated bill through a marathon markup session, said he hoped “that our history, our values and our decency can inspire us finally to take action.”
Leahy had suffered a setback, however, when he was forced to withdraw his key amendment, a measure that would have allowed gay Americans to sponsor their foreign-born spouses for US residency and citizenship.
“This is not the bill that I would have drafted,” he said.
“I will continue my efforts to end the needless discrimination so many Americans face in our immigration system. This discrimination serves no legitimate purpose and it is wrong.”
Senator Marco Rubio, perhaps the most high-profile Republican in the “Gang of Eight” that crafted the bill, had warned that fellow conservatives would vote against the measure en masse if it included Leahy’s provision.
The Gang of Eight has made no secret of their wish to send the bill to the House with a substantial majority of some 70 votes, a result they hope would send a strong message to sceptical House Republicans.
Accomplishing that would mean placating key Republicans like Senator Orrin Hatch, who had expressed concern that the immigration bill’s provision of speciality visas to persons in high-tech fields could cost American jobs.
Hatch reached agreement with key Democrats on the panel, and his amendment to protect American workers passed the committee.
In turn Hatch backed the overall legislation, one of three Republicans who sided with the committee’s 10 Democrats.
“I said when the immigration bill was first introduced that it needed improvement to get to a point where I could support it, and I’m pleased we were able to do that by further strengthening border security and ensuring we can remain competitive in a global economy,” Hatch said.
“But this bill needs more improvement before I’m ready to vote for it when the full Senate takes it up.”
Even opponents of the bill, like Senator John Cornyn, expressed a hint of optimism that a broader deal could be worked out.
“I want the system to work for everyone, and I am hopeful that common sense will eventually lead to common ground,” he said.