WASHINGTON — A sweeping bipartisan plan to overhaul the nation's immigration system headed to the Senate floor after a key committee approved it Tuesday, setting the stage for a debate next month that could lead to the biggest victory for advocates of immigrant rights in a generation.
The centerpiece of the legislation — a 13-year path to citizenship for many of the 11 million people now in the country without legal status — survived intact. But the bill's supporters accepted amendments that tilted it to the right to attract GOP backing, including some to toughen border security.
The bill faces weeks of debate in the Senate. Both Democrats and Republicans will seek to undo some of the compromises in the bill, and GOP opponents may yet try to sink it. An even tougher challenge lies ahead in the House, where members of the Republican majority have been less interested than their Senate counterparts in a comprehensive revamping of immigration policy.
The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the bill, 13 to 5, with three Republicans joining the majority Democrats. A last-minute deal persuaded one GOP senator to join the two Republicans who had helped draft the bill, but the other Republicans remained adamantly opposed.
"All of us know our immigration system is not working," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), committee chairman. "It's long time past for reform. I hope that our history, our values and our decency as a people — as a people — can inspire us to take action. We're Americans. We need an immigration system that lives up to American values."
With passage, cheers erupted in the audience, which has been packed each day for the three weeks of hearings. "Yes we can!" the crowd chanted before switching to Spanish, "Si se puede!"
The bill, drafted by four Democrats and four Republicans, would be the most substantial change in immigration law since the 1986 reforms under President Reagan, which gave legal status to 3 million people.
As the Senate committee blazed through the last of 300 amendments Tuesday, President Obama met at the White House with young people from immigrant families. Immigration overhaul is the administration's top second-term priority, and the president acknowledged that compromise was necessary.
"None of the committee members got everything they wanted, and neither did I," Obama said in a statement. "But in the end, we all owe it to the American people to get the best possible result over the finish line."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has vowed to make the bill the chamber's priority in June and try to send it to the House with some momentum behind it.
Earlier Tuesday, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican minority leader, said, "I'm hopeful that we'll be able to get a bill that we can pass here in the Senate."
Although substantial resistance remains, many Republicans are increasingly open to changing immigration policy. Party leaders believe support of the overhaul will help them attract Latino and minority voters who have abandoned the GOP in recent elections. Business and religious leaders who are influential among Republicans have also pushed the benefits of bringing immigrants into the legal system.
What began a month ago as a 844-page bill now includes a complicated series of political trade-offs.
The bill would provide a path to citizenship for people who came into the country illegally or overstayed visas, so long as they entered before December 2011. They must get provisional status, show a viable income, pay back taxes, fees and fines, and learn English. They can gain permanent legal status in 10 years and apply for citizenship in 13 years. The process is half as long for agricultural workers who commit to jobs in the fields and adults who were brought to the country as minors but serve in the military or attend college.
The legislation also would provide $4.5 billion for increased border security, and a new low-skilled guest-worker program would begin for maids, landscapers and others who could enter the country for three-year stints. All employers would be required, within five years, to verify the legal status of their workers.
During the debate over the bill, major changes proposed by opponents were thwarted, but others that did not endanger the bill were accepted. In all, 141 amendments were adopted.
More are coming. Both sides promised to fight some of the same battles anew as the Senate tries to craft a bill that can win support in the House.
"The reality is that work still remains to be done," said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who is not on the committee, but whose work as one of the authors gave the bill a push. "Immigration reform will not become law unless we can earn the confidence of the American people that we are solving our immigration problems once and for all."
Rubio, a potential presidential hopeful, promised a fight on the Senate floor for tougher border security provisions, a warning shot that encouraged the committee to move the bill to the right.
The committee obliged by adding a new exit-visa system at the nation's busiest international airports to track immigrants as they depart. An estimated 40% of the illegal immigration in U.S. stems from those who stay after their visas expire.
The committee also beefed up rules on student visas after the Boston Marathon bombings. But it is unclear whether the tougher provisions go far enough to satisfy Rubio's conservative allies.
At the same time, liberals lost their drive to allow immigrant gay partners and spouses of U.S. citizens and legal residents to qualify for legal status, as straight spouses do. The room grew quiet late Tuesday as Leahy shelved his amendment "with a heavy heart" after some senators warned it would tank GOP support.
"You've got me on immigration. You don't have me on marriage. I don't know how to put it more plainly," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of the Senate authors.
An 11th-hour agreement on high-skilled visas with Republican Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah proved crucial to gaining his support; his was the sole GOP vote aside from those of the authors. Hatch won changes that included tripling the number of high-skilled visas available, to 180,000, more quickly than originally proposed.
The Hatch provisions were popular with big business, but opposed by labor.
For Democrats, the biggest win was the path to citizenship, which remains crucial for their support. The arguments against such a path have grown more muted than they were six years ago, when Congress last attempted an immigration overhaul. But Republican opponents of the bill, including Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, repeatedly conjured up the 1986 bill, which they say granted amnesty and failed to secure the border.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), the son of Cuban immigrants, offered an amendment to gut the path to citizenship, which was rejected. He voted against the bill, saying "it doesn't fix the problem."
The divide among Republicans was evident when all committee members — except Sessions — shot down the Alabama senator's amendment that would have capped the overall number of newcomers.
Democrat Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, one of the bill's chief architects, said that without the legalization program, there would be no reform. "That is so against the lady that stands in the harbor of the city I represent," he said. "You won't have my vote. You won't have the vote of a whole lot of people."
After the vote, Schumer was among the senators whom many in the audience sought out for pictures.
"This is the hope we've been looking for, for many years," said Claudia Quinonez, an 18-year-old high school senior in Maryland, who came to the U.S. from Bolivia when she was 11. "We're fighting for our mothers, fathers, cousins — everyone who wants that American dream."
Christi Parsons in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.