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Senate To Debate Immigration Overhaul


Supporters of a new immigration bill claimed a victory last night. Legislation to overhaul the nation's immigration policies cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee. After weeks of debate, the committee approved this bipartisan measure that would pave the way for citizenship for some 11 million undocumented immigrants. The bill now advances to the full Senate.

Dozens of changes were made to the legislation, but the bill survived mostly intact. This came after a divisive amendment was withdrawn that would allow U.S. citizens the right to sponsor their same sex partners for green cards. NPR's David Welna has the story.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: For a panel made up of 10 Democrats and eight Republicans, the Judiciary Committee vote to approve the immigration bill was unusually bipartisan.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Mr. Chairman, the votes are 13 yays, 5 nays.


WELNA: Immigration bill supporters who packed the hearing room were ecstatic that 13 of the 18 senators had voted for the bill. Getting such a strong majority had been a key goal, since that vote, along with the 29 Republican amendments that were adopted, may boost the bill's chances in the Senate and maybe even in the GOP-controlled House.

But getting there was not easy. Utah Republican Orrin Hatch had conditioned his support for the bill on the committee adopting measures making it easier for U.S. firms to hire highly skilled foreign workers. Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin, who's a pro-labor member of the Gang of Eight, told Hatch yesterday he was no longer opposing those amendments.

SENATOR DICK DURBIN: We have made concessions I never thought we'd have to make after the Gang of Eight reached an agreement, but we've made those concessions to win your support. We need your support. We want to pass this bill, this immigration reform bill.

WELNA: Hatch, in turn, promised to vote for the bill, at least in committee.

SENATOR ORRIN HATCH: I believe it makes this bill a much more acceptable bill and I think that it will help this bill to be more acceptable to the House of Representatives as well.

WELNA: But the very last amendment brought up might well have put the bill's future in jeopardy. It was offered by the panel's Democratic chairman, Patrick Leahy. He pointed out that the Gang of Eight had not included any provision allowing gay Americans to sponsor their foreign-born spouses for green cards.

SENATOR PATRICK LEAHY: It means if you're an American, you fall in love with someone of the same sex from a different country and you get married legally, your spouse would not be treated like any other immigrant spouse would be by your federal government. My amendment would change that. I don't want to be the senator who asked Americans to choose between the love of their life and the love of their country.

WELNA: But other senators felt they were being forced to choose between the amendment and the bill itself, since they feared the measure could blow up Republican support. New York Democrat Charles Schumer is the leader of the Gang of Eight.

SENATOR CHARLES SCHUMER: Much as it pains me, I cannot support this amendment if it will bring down the bill.

WELNA: Another Gang of Eight member, South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham, left no doubt Schumer's concerns were well founded.

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: When it comes to passing this immigration bill, to interject redefinition of marriage would be a bridge too far. We're very close, I think, to creating a product that will solve a very difficult problem a long time in the making, and I would just urge my colleagues to understand that this would fracture the coalition. I could not support the bill if we redefined marriage in the immigration bill.

WELNA: What followed was a plea from California Democrat Diane Feinstein.

SENATOR DIANE FEINSTEIN: I am for what Senator Leahy is proposing. I would just, in all good - I would just implore him to hold up on this amendment at this time.

WELNA: Leahy did finally withdraw his amendment even as he vowed he'd keep fighting for it when the immigration bill moves next month to the Senate floor. David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.