Senate Judiciary Committee advances immigration reform bill in 13-5 vote

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted with a strong bipartisan majority Tuesday evening to advance comprehensive immigration legislation that would put 11 million illegal immigrants on a path to citizenship.

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The legislation raises caps on high-skilled workers and creates a new visa program for low-skilled workers.

It would allocate billions of dollars to securing the southwestern border and tracking visas at airports and seaports around the country. It would make E-Verify mandatory for employers across the country in order to crack down on illegal workers and deter future waves of illegal immigration

The legislation passed by a vote of 13 to 5 with three Republicans joining 10 Democrats to approve the measure. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has said it will come to the floor next month.

The three Republicans voting "yes" were Sens. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Jeff Flake (Ariz.), who are members of the Gang of Eight, which crafted the bill, and Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah).

Democrats secured Hatch's support earlier in the day by negotiating a deal to loosen restrictions on H-1B visas for high-skilled workers, which the high-tech industry had lobbied for vigorously.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), the bill’s lead author, touted the three Republican supporters as a promising sign of the floor debate to come.

“This gives us a bipartisan head of steam as we move forward in the Senate. The openness of this process and the sheer number of Republican additions to the bill will go a long way on the Senate floor.”

A crowd of supporters wearing white T-shirts emblazoned with pro-immigrant slogans cheered Schumer and chanted, “Yes, we can,” as he left the hearing room in the Hart Senate Office Building.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a pivotal member of the Gang of Eight, who has spent many hours selling the legislation to skeptical conservatives, applauded the committee’s action, but cautioned the bill still needs work.

“Through an extensive, open and transparent process, they have made real improvements to the bill,” he said. “However, the reality is that work still remains to be done. Immigration reform will not become law unless we can earn the confidence of the American people that we are solving our immigration problems once and for all.”

Some Democratic aides thought they had a shot of picking up a vote from Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), the second-ranking Senate Republican and a member of the Judiciary panel.

Cornyn has a large population of Hispanics in his state and has spoken of the need to fix the nation’s immigration reform system. But in the end, he voted against the bipartisan bill.

Cornyn grumbled in a Twitter post Tuesday that Democrats had rejected what he called “common sense” amendments to strengthen the U.S.-Mexico border and track biometric data for visa exits.

On Monday, Democrats on the committee voted against Cornyn’s amendment to remove the secretary of Homeland Security’s discretion to waive deportation rules for immigrants found guilty of three misdemeanors.

Throughout the markup, which took place on four days over several weeks, Graham and Flake stuck with Democrats to defeat Republican amendments that would have endangered the bill.

They voted against GOP proposals to implement a system to track visas using biometric data at border crossing points, to drastically increase the number of border patrol agents and aerial drones along the southern border and to require effective control of the borders six months before granting millions of illegal immigrants legal status.

Democrats, however, touted an array of Republican amendments adopted by voice vote to strengthen border security and enforcement provisions. One such amendment, sponsored by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), requires U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to submit weekly reports to Immigration and Customs Enforcement on people who fail employment eligibility checks through the E-Verify system.

The cost of the legislation was a source of debate between supporters and opponents of the bill. The conservative Heritage Foundation published a report that it would add $6.3 trillion to the federal deficit over the lifetimes of the millions of illegal immigrants granted legal status.

The bill passed committee without a score from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), a point of concern for Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), a member of Judiciary and the ranking Republican on the Senate Budget Committee.

Sessions sent a letter to CBO in April asking for a long-term estimate of the bill’s costs.

“This bill is bad for workers, bad for taxpayers and — as immigration officers have pleaded for us to hear — a threat to public safety and the rule of law,” Sessions said in closing remarks submitted before the final vote.

One of the biggest questions of Tuesday evening was whether Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) would call a vote on two amendments he sponsored to extend equal treatment to same-sex couples under immigration law. Leahy ultimately decided not to offer the amendments.

Leahy had reportedly come under pressure from the White House not to offer the amendments, which Republican members of the Gang of Eight threatened would sink the compromise legislation.

Democrats, who control 10 seats on the committee compared to the Republicans’ eight, could have passed the amendment to grant equal rights to same-sex couples. But Republican members of the Gang of Eight warned it would have scuttled the bill.

“All I’m telling you, if it gets on the bill, it’s not going to pass. It’s going to shatter the coalition,” Rubio warned earlier in the day.

One of Leahy’s amendments would have allowed citizens in committed same-sex relationships to sponsor foreign partners for permanent legal status. Another proposal would have exempted immigration law from the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act.

It would have been an especially tough vote for Schumer, the driving force behind the bill, who is also a sponsor of the Uniting American Families Act, which served as the basis for one of Leahy’s amendments.

Schumer could have defeated Leahy’s amendments by voting “no,” but he had come under intense pressure in recent weeks from gay-rights’ activists to support the measures.

Earlier in the day, Leahy downplayed a report by The Associated Press that the White House had pressed him not to offer the amendments.

“Who in the White House said that? I never discuss conversations I have with the president. I have a lot of conversations, and I doubt if he would,” he said.

—This report was originally published at 8:10 p.m. and last updated at 9:23 p.m.

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