WASHINGTON - The bipartisan coalition behind a contentious overhaul of immigration laws stuck together on a critical early series of test votes Thursday, turning back challenges from conservative critics as the Senate Judiciary Committee refined legislation to secure the borders and grant eventual citizenship to millions living in the United States illegally.
In a cavernous room packed with lobbyists and immigration activists, the panel rejected numerous moves to impose tougher conditions on border security before immigrants who entered the country illegally could take the first steps along a new pathway toward citizenship.
Republicans Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Jeff Flake of Arizona - part of a bipartisan group that helped draft the measure - joined all 10 Democrats in blocking the changes. Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican who has yet to announce a position on the overall legislation, opposed one and supported the others.
From left, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., standing, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, and Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, confer as the Senate Judiciary Committee meets on immigration reform on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday.
Assuming the core political alignment remains intact, the committee is expected to approve the measure within two weeks and clear the way for an epic showdown on the Senate floor in June.
White House aides watched from the sidelines as the committee began its work on a bill that President Barack Obama has made a top priority in the opening months of his second term.
Painstakingly negotiated by a bipartisan "Gang of Eight," the measure would clear the way for tens of thousands of new high-tech and lesser-skilled workers to enter the country while also requiring all employers to check the legal status of their employees. But it was the core trade-off - securing the border against future illegal immigration while setting up a 13-year process by which immigrants unlawfully in the country could qualify for citizenship - that generated the most controversy by far.
Sen. Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat who helped draft the bill, said it would "change our policy so that the people who are needed to help our economy grow can come into this country, and at the same time we will note that when families are divided the humane thing to do is bring those families back together.