WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate Judiciary Committee is aiming this week to pass a landmark immigration bill to secure the border and offer citizenship to millions, setting up a high-stakes debate on the Senate floor.
First, the committee must resolve a few remaining disputes.
One involves amendments over high-skilled immigrant visas sought by the high-tech industry but opposed by labor unions. The bill as written increases the availability of these visas, but includes restrictions aimed at ensuring U.S. workers get the first crack at jobs. Silicon Valley companies view some of the restrictions as too onerous and are lobbying to soften them.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, seen as a swing vote on the committee, is on the side of the high-tech industry, while Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., is championing the labor position. Lawmakers and lobbyists have been trying to find a compromise that could win Hatch's support for the overall bill without alienating Durbin, one of its authors.
There's also a disagreement over whether gay Americans should be given the right to sponsor their foreign-born spouses for green cards like straight Americans can. Gay rights groups are pressuring Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., to offer an amendment allowing this, but Republican authors of the immigration bill insist that they'll abandon their support for their legislation if such a measure is included.
Both disputes were put off until last week as lawmakers negotiated behind the scenes and weighed their options. The three public work sessions the Judiciary Committee held over the last two weeks featured little suspense, as committee members waded through some of the 300 amendments that were filed to the bipartisan bill. The legislation seeks to dramatically remake the U.S. immigration system and allow tens of thousands of new high- and low-skilled workers into the country.
Committee members accepted a number of Republican-sought changes to the bill, including provisions tightening up border security. But majority Democrats and the two Republican committee members who helped write the legislation — Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham — fended off major changes, branded "poison pills," that could jeopardize the delicate compromises at its core.
This week, in addition to the high-tech and gay marriage disputes, amendments will focus on the crucial sections of the bill dealing with the 13-year path to citizenship the legislation offers the 11 million people in this country who are here illegally.
Democrats have the votes to ensure committee passage of the legislation by the end of the week, before Congress breaks for its Memorial Day recess. The outcome is less certain on the Senate floor, where Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has promised the measure will be considered in June. Less certain still is the outcome in the GOP-controlled House, where Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has not said publicly how or when he'll proceed with bringing immigration legislation to a vote.