WASHINGTON - Far-reaching legislation that grants a chance at citizenship to millions of immigrants living illegally in the United States cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee on a solid bipartisan vote Tuesday night after supporters somberly sidestepped a controversy over the rights of gay spouses.
The 13-5 vote cleared the way for an epic showdown on the Senate floor on legislation that is one of President Obama's top domestic priorities - yet also gives the Republican Party a chance to recast itself as more appealing to minorities.
The action sparked rejoicing from immigration activists who crowded into a Senate committee room to witness the proceedings.
"Yes, we can! Si, se puede," they shouted, reprising the campaign cry from Obama's first run for the White House in 2008.
In addition to creating a pathway to citizenship for 11.5 million immigrants, the legislation creates a new program for low-skilled foreign labor and would permit highly skilled workers into the country at far higher levels than is currently the case.
At the same time, it requires the government to take costly new steps to guard against future illegal immigration.
In a statement, Obama said the measure is "largely consistent with the principles of common-sense reform I have proposed and meets the challenge of fixing our broken immigration system."
There was suspense to the end of the committee's deliberations, when Sen. Patrick Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who serves as chairman, sparked a debate over his proposal to give same-sex and heterosexual spouses equal rights under immigration law.
"I don't want to be the senator who asks people to choose between the love of their life and the love of their country," he said, adding that he wanted to hear from others on the committee.
In response, he heard a chorus of pleas from the bill's supporters, seconding private appeals from the White House, not to force a vote that they warned would lead to the collapse of Republican support and the bill's demise.
"I believe in my heart of hearts that what you're doing is the right and just thing," said one, Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill. "But I believe this is the wrong moment, that this is the wrong bill."
Sen. Chuck Schumer, the New York Democrat who has played a central role in advancing the legislation, said he would have voted against the proposal if Leahy had pressed the case - a defection that would have caused it to fail on a tie.
On StarNet: Find extensive coverage of immigration issues at azstarnet.com/border