A US Senate panel last night approved legislation to give millions of illegal immigrants a path to citizenship, setting up a spirited debate next month in the full Senate over the biggest changes in immigration policy in a generation.
President Barack Obama, who has made enactment of an immigration bill one of his top priorities for this year, praised the Senate Judiciary Committee's action, saying the bill was consistent with the goals he has expressed.
"I encourage the full Senate to bring this bipartisan bill to the floor at the earliest possible opportunity and remain hopeful that the amendment process will lead to further improvements," Mr Obama said in a statement released by the White House.
By a vote of 13-5, the Senate panel approved the 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 into the United States.
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 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.
Mr Leahy's colleagues on the committee - Republicans and Democrats - warned that the amendment would kill the legislation in Congress. Democrats generally favour providing equal treatment for heterosexual and homosexual couples, while many Republicans oppose doing so.
“I’m committed to ending that discrimination,” Mr Leahy said before withdrawing the amendment.
"Democrats should be ashamed of themselves for not defending LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) families against the scapegoating of their Republican colleagues," said Rachel Tiven, executive director of Immigration Equality, a gay rights group.
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 US technology industry, were the price of his support for the bill when the committee voted. Mr Hatch voted for the bill.
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.
Mr McConnell of Kentucky did not say how he ultimately would vote on the bill, but he told reporters that the bipartisan measure “made a substantial contribution to moving the issue forward.”