WASHINGTON - The most far-reaching U.S. immigration legislation in about two decades moved forward on a solid bipartisan vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee after supporters avoided a controversy over the rights of gay spouses.
The 13-5 vote cleared the way for a full Senate showdown on one of President Barack Obama's top domestic priorities — and gives the opposition Republican Party a chance to recast itself as more appealing to minorities.
"Yes, we can! Si, se puede" immigration activists shouted after the vote, reprising Obama's campaign cry in his historic run for the White House in 2008.
In addition to creating a pathway to citizenship for 11.5 million immigrants living illegally in the country, the legislation creates a new program for low-skilled foreign labour and would permit highly skilled workers into 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.
In a statement, Obama said the legislation is "largely consistent with the principles of common-sense reform I have proposed and meets the challenge of fixing our broken immigration system."
Many Republicans have embraced the idea of immigration reform after nearly 70 per cent of Hispanic voters supporters Obama in last year's election, leading to concerns that the party was out of touch with a younger, more diverse country.
There was suspense before Tuesday's vote when Sen. Patrick Leahy, the panel's 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 collapse of Republican support and the bill's demise.
"I believe in my heart of hearts that what you're doing is the right and just thing," said one, Democratic Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois. "But I believe this is the wrong moment, that this is the wrong bill."
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina warned that the gay rights proposal "would fracture the coalition" forged by the bipartisan so-called Gang of Eight — a group of eight Republican and Democratic senators that drafted the core elements of the bill.
Republicans and Democrats alike also noted that the Supreme Court may soon issue a ruling on same-sex marriage that renders the controversy moot.
Chad Griffin, the president of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights advocacy group, said his group was "extremely disappointed that our allies did not put their anti-LGBT colleagues on the spot and force a vote on the measure that remains popular with the American people."
In the hours leading to a final vote, the panel also agreed to a last-minute compromise covering an increase in the visa program for high-tech workers. The number of highly skilled workers admitted would rise from 65,000 annually to 110,000, with the possibility of a further increase to 180,000, depending in part on unemployment levels.
Firms where foreign labour accounts for at least 15 per cent of the skilled work force would be subjected to tighter conditions.
The compromise was negotiated by Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, whose state is home to a growing high tech industry, and Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer of New York. It is designed to balance the interests of industry, which relies increasingly on skilled foreign labour, and organized labour, which represents American workers.
AFL-CIO labour federation President Richard Trumka attacked the deal sharply as "anti-worker," although he also made clear organized labour would continue to support the overall legislation.
Robert Hoffman, senior vice-president for government affairs at the Information Technology Industry Council, welcomed the deal. "We obviously want to keep moving the bill forward and building support for the legislation, and this agreement allows us to do so," he said.
On the final vote, three Republicans joined the 10 committee Democrats in supporting the bill.
The gay rights issue is certain to re-emerge when the full Senate debates the legislation, although it is doubtful that sponsors can command the 60 votes that will be needed to make it part of the legislation.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said he will bring the legislation to the Senate floor early next month for a debate that some aides predict could consume a month or more, with an outcome that is impossible to predict.
In the other chamber of Congress, the House of Representatives, the fate of immigration legislation is even less clear. The legislation is due to receive a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.
The centerpiece provision of the legislation in the Senate allows people living in the U.S. illegally to obtain "registered provisional immigrant status" six months after enactment if certain conditions are also met.
Applicants must have arrived in the United States before Dec. 31, 2011, and maintained a continuous physical presence, must not have a felony conviction or more than two misdemeanours on their record and pay a $500 fine.
The registered provisional immigrant status lasts six years and is renewable for another $500. After a decade, individuals could seek a green card and lawful permanent resident status if they are up to date on their taxes and pay a $1,000 fine and meet other conditions.
Individuals brought to the country as youths would be able to apply for green cards in five years.
Associated Press writers David Espo and Erica Werner and AP White House Correspondent Julie Pace contributed to this report.