Far-reaching legislation to grant a chance at citizenship to millions of immigrants living illegally in the United States cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee on a solid bipartisan vote after supporters sidestepped a controversy over the rights of gay spouses.
The 13-5 vote on Tuesday night cleared the way for a showdown on the Senate floor on the measure, which is one of US President Barack Obama's top domestic priorities yet also gives the Republican Party a chance to recast itself as more appealing to minorities.
The committee's action sparked rejoicing from immigration activists who crowded into a Senate committee room to witness the proceedings. "Yes, we can!" they shouted.
In addition to creating a pathway to citizenship for 11.5 million immigrants, the legislation creates a new programme for low-skilled foreign labour and would permit highly skilled workers to enter the country at far higher levels than is currently the case.
At the same time, it requires the government to take costly new steps to guard against future illegal immigration.
There was suspense to the end of the committee's deliberations, when Senator Patrick Leahy, who serves as chairman, sparked a debate over his proposal to give same-sex and heterosexual spouses equal rights under immigration law.
"I don't want to be the senator who asks people to choose between the love of their life and the love of their country," he said, adding he wanted to hear from others on the committee.
In response, he heard a chorus of pleas from the bill's supporters, seconding private appeals from the White House, not to force a vote that they warned would lead to the bill's demise.
"I believe in my heart of hearts that what you're doing is the right and just thing," said one of them, Senator Richard Durbin. "But I believe this is the wrong moment, that this is the wrong bill."
In the hours leading to a final vote, the panel also agreed to a last-minute compromise covering an increase in the visa programme for hi-tech workers, a deal that brought Senator Orrin Hatch over to the ranks of supporters.
Under the compromise, the number of highly skilled workers admitted to the country would rise from 65,000 annually to 110,000, with the possibility of a further rise to 180,000, depending in part on unemployment levels.
Firms where foreign labour accounts for at least 15 per cent of the skilled workforce would be subjected to tighter conditions.
The centrepiece provision of the legislation allows an estimated 11 million people living in the US illegally to obtain "registered provisional immigrant status" six months after enactment if certain conditions are also met.
Applicants must have arrived in the US before December 31, 2011, and maintained continuous physical presence, must not have a felony conviction on their record, and must pay a US$500 fine.
The registered provisional immigrant status lasts six years and is renewable for another US$500. After a decade, though, individuals could seek a green card and lawful permanent resident status if they are up to date on their taxes and pay a US$1,000 fine and meet other conditions.
Individuals brought to the country in their youth would be able to apply for green cards in five years.