Far-reaching legislation to grant a chance at citizenship to millions of immigrants living illegally in the United States cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee on a solid bipartisan vote tonight 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 the measure, which is one of President Obama's top domestic priorities yet also gives the GOP a chance to recast itself as more appealing to minorities.
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. Sen. Patrick Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who serves as chairman, sparked a late 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. Supporters convinced him it could torpedo the legislation. (Read more immigration reform stories.)