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Senate committee approves immigration overhaul

A Senate committee approved a sweeping immigration reform bill yesterday that would provide a path to citizenship for up to 11 million illegal immigrants, setting the stage for the full Senate to consider the landmark legislation next month.

After five days of debate over dozens of amendments, the Judiciary Committee voted, 13-5, in support of the bill, with three Republicans joining the committee’s 10 Democrats. The legislation emerged with its core provisions largely intact, including new visa programs for high-tech and low-skilled workers and new investments in strengthening border control.

“The dysfunction in our current immigration system affects all of us and it is long past time for reform. I hope that our history, our values, and our decency can inspire us finally to take action,” said committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat. “We need an immigration system that lives up to American values and helps write the next great chapter in American history by reinvigorating our economy and enriching our communities.”

President Obama, who has made immigration reform his top second-term priority, issued a statement praising the committee for approving a bill that is “largely consistent” with the principles he had outlined.

“None of the committee members got everything they wanted, and neither did I,” Obama said, “but in the end, we all owe it to the American people to get the best possible result over the finish line.”

The comprehensive bill is now headed to the full Senate, where Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, urged fellow Republicans yesterday not to block the bill from a floor vote. The Congressional Budget Office will take two weeks to issue an assessment of the fiscal cost of the bill, so Democratic aides said the floor debate could begin around June 10.

The final Judiciary Committee vote represented a victory for the bipartisan group – four Democrats and four Republicans – that negotiated the 850-page comprehensive bill over several months. Their delicate agreement hinged on several major provisions hammered out between the negotiators, whose balance could have been threatened during the amendment process.

But four of the bipartisan group members who are on the Judiciary Committee banded together to fight off the most serious challenges to the core provisions of the bill, including a last-minute attempt from Leahy to add protections for bi-national, same-sex couples.

In an emotional debate, Sens. Chuck Shumer, a New York Democrat, and Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, said they wanted to support Leahy’s amendment, but that they would not because Republican members of the bipartisan group, including Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, said they would drop support if the provision were added to the legislation.

Leahy ultimately withdrew the amendment “with a heavy heart,” amid near silence in the packed Senate hearing.

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