WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday approved legislation that would bring about the biggest changes in U.S. immigration policy in a generation, setting up a spirited debate in the full Senate next month.
By a vote of 13-5, the panel approved the nearly 900-page bill that would put 11 million illegal residents on a 13-year path to citizenship while further strengthening security along the southwestern border with Mexico, long a sieve for illegal crossings.
The vote followed the committee’s decision to embrace a Republican move to ease restrictions on high-tech U.S. companies that want to hire more skilled workers from countries like India and China.
In a dramatic move just before the vote, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, withdrew an amendment to give people the right to sponsor same-sex partners who are foreigners for permanent legal status.
Leahy’s colleagues on the committee - Republicans and Democrats - warned that the amendment would kill the legislation in Congress. Democrats generally favor providing equal treatment for heterosexual and homosexual couples, while many Republicans oppose doing so.
“I’m committed to ending that discrimination,” Leahy said before withdrawing the amendment.
Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah said the changes made to visa rules governing high-skilled workers, which he had demanded on behalf of the U.S. technology industry, were the price of his support for the bill when the committee took its final vote.
In another encouraging sign for the legislation, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said he will not block the measure from coming to the floor for a full debate.
McConnell did not say how he ultimately would vote on the bill, but he told reporters that the changes won by Hatch “has made a substantial contribution to moving the issue forward.”
All of the core elements of the legislation have been maintained after five long work sessions by the bipartisan group, and some border security provisions critical to conservatives and border-state members of Congress have been strengthened.
Additional reporting by Sarah McBride. Writing by Richard Cowan; Editing by Xavier Briand and Paul Simao