In a bipartisan vote of 13-5, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a broad overhaul of the nation's immigration laws, sending the legislation onto the floor, where the fight is expected to last through June.
The move came as the committee reached a deal on one of the final snags threatening the legislation _and agreed to hold off on another particularly controversial amendment, which would have added protections for same-sex couples.
After intense behind-the-scenes negotiations, Senator Orrin G Hatch, R-Utah, struck an agreement with the bipartisan group of eight senators that drafted the original bill to address his concerns about the high-skilled foreign workers who could fill jobs in the high-tech industry.
By late afternoon on Tuesday, Hatch had said that he would support the bill out of committee, if not necessarily on the Senate floor, after the committee agreed, via a voice vote, to pass his amendment.
"I'm going to vote this bill out of committee because I've committed to do that," Hatch said.
Hatch's support could help persuade other conservative Republicans to back the measure.
The most emotional part of the committee process, which stretched over five days and 301 amendments, when Senator Patrick J Leahy, D-Vt., who leads the committee, revealed that he would not offer a controversial amendment allowing US citizens to apply for permanent resident status, known as a green card, on behalf of their same-sex partners.
Leahy, according to advocates for gay rights and for immigration, was under pressure from Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-NY and an author of the measure, as well as from the White House, not to offer this amendment. Though both President Barack Obama and Democrats in the bipartisan group support protections for same-sex couples in the bill, Republicans in the group have warned that such provisions would lead them to abandon the legislation entirely.
Before Leahy announced his decision, Democratic senators, all of whom personally supported the provision, engaged in a lengthy and agonizing debate.
Schumer, who said that although not including the provision amounted to "rank discrimination," ultimately concluded: "As much as it pains me, I cannot support this amendment if it will bring down the bill."
Similarly, Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., said, "This is the definition of a Hobson's choice. In my bones, I believe in equality."
But Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-SC, a co-author of the bill, reflected the view of his Republican colleagues when he said: "You've got me on immigration. You don't have me on marriage. If you want to keep me on immigration, let's stay on immigration."
Ultimately, Leahy withheld his amendment "with a heavy heart," though he can still bring it up on the Senate floor.
Hatch's amendment, which reflects the compromise he reached with the bipartisan group, raises the minimum number of visas annually for high-skilled foreign workers - known as H-1B visas - to 115,000, from 110,000 in the bill, while keeping the maximum at 180,000 a year. More important, aides to Hatch said, his provision includes a mechanism based on conditions in the labor market, intended to ensure that companies based in the United States can bring qualified foreign workers when jobs are not filled by Americans, but decreases visas when Americans are available.
His provision would also make it easier for employers to hire foreign workers, because it lightens the burden on them to demonstrate that they first tried to hire a qualified American worker.
Hatch's amendment clarifies distinctions between companies in which the majority of engineers and computer technicians are Americans, and companies with mostly foreign workers. Under the measure, more stringent restrictions would apply to the companies with a foreign labor force, like many Indian outsourcing companies, raising incentives to hire more Americans.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, a Democratic member of the bipartisan group, had been one of the last holdouts against Hatch's amendment. Along with Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, Durbin worried that Hatch's provisions would harm American workers.
But on Tuesday, Durbin signaled that he would support Hatch's agreement.
"I would like to have seen a different amendment, a different bill - you would have as well," Durbin said. "But this is a dramatic improvement." (Grassley, meanwhile, remained unconvinced, arguing, "Let's see how much this stinks.")
Durbin made it clear that he expected Hatch's support in return for his own vote in favor of the deal, saying: "A number of us have really leaned a long way in your direction to get your support for immigration reform."
Hatch had previously said that he believed his amendment "makes this bill a much more acceptable bill," especially in the Republican-controlled House, where it is likely to face stiff opposition.
The agreement represents a win for the high-tech industry, and comes on the heels of intense lobbying by the industry. The Association for Competitive Technology, a trade group, sent 50 executives and application developers to Washington on Monday and Tuesday to meet with lawmakers, including members of the Judiciary Committee.
Richard L. Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, the nation's largest federation of unions, issued a statement warning against what he said were Hatch's "antiworker amendments."
As the committee was finishing its work, a drumbeat against an immigration overhaul began to pick up outside the paneled walls of the hearing room. Dozens of high-profile conservative leaders and activists signed an open letter published Tuesdaythat denounced the bipartisan bill, saying the Senate "would do better to start over from scratch."
The conservatives said the bill was "bloated and unwieldy," comparing it to Obama's health care bill.