WASHINGTON — Far-reaching immigration legislation neared a final committee vote on Tuesday as the White House and Democratic supporters sought to delay a showdown over the rights of gay spouses until a debate in the full Senate.
"There have been 300 amendments. Why shouldn't we have one more?" replied Sen. Patrick Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee. He was responding to concerns that a vote on the issue inside the panel could unravel months of work on the bill, which gives a chance at citizenship to millions of immigrants living in the United States illegally.
The measure also 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 take new steps to guard against future illegal immigration.
As the day wore on, opponents of the bill made a final bid to strip the measure of its signature feature — a path to citizenship that could take 13 years and payment of fines totaling $2,000 to travel. Sen. Ted Cruz' proposal failed on a vote of 13-5.
The rejection was one of numerous ways in which the bipartisan coalition behind the White House-backed measure demonstrated its command of the proceedings.
Without so much as a roll call vote, the panel adopted a compromise setting the terms of the expansion of H-1B high tech visas, a deal that brought Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah over to the ranks of supporters.
Under the deal, the number of highly skilled workers admitted to the country would rise from 65,000 annually to 110,000, with the possibility of a further rise to 180,000 depending in part on unemployment levels.
Firms where foreign labor accounts for at least 15 percent of the skilled work force would be subjected to tighter conditions than companies less dependent on H-IB visa holders.
The compromise was negotiated by Hatch, whose state is home to a growing high tech industry, and Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. It is designed to balance the interests of industry, which relies increasingly on skilled foreign labor, and organized labor, which represents American workers.
AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka attacked the deal sharply, saying Hatch's amendments "are unambiguous attacks on American workers," and change the bill so high tech companies can bring in foreign workers "without first making the jobs available to American workers.
At the same time, he reaffirmed organized labor's continuing support for the overall measure, a statement that allowed Schumer to add to the bill's majority in committee without driving organized labor into the camp of its opponents.
Robert Hoffman, senior vice president for government affairs at the Information Technology Industry Council, welcomed the deal. "We think it strikes a very good balance between worker protections already in the bill and changes that essentially would make the H-1B visa workable," he said.
"We obviously want to keep moving the bill forward and building support for the legislation, and this agreement allows us to do so."
At the White House, President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden met privately in the Oval Office with a small group of the bill's supporters, part of the administration's campaign to build support.
Justino Mora, 23, who participated, later said he had told the group he came to the United States at age 11, brought by his mother from Mexico to escape poverty and an abusive father. Now a student at UCLA, he has achieved legal status as a result of administration policy that permits individuals brought to the United States as children to legalize.
His mother remains in the county illegally, he said, adding that he told Obama and Biden of the fear and uncertainty of not knowing if she will be deported or detained from one day to the next. "They both were very moved by that aspect. They're both parents," Mora said in an interview.
The controversy over the rights of gay spouses, with the ability to fracture a bipartisan coalition behind the legislation, has hovered in the background of the debate from the beginning.
As drafted by the Gang of Eight, four Republicans and four Democrats who negotiated the basic provisions of the legislation, gay spouses do not have the same right to a green card as heterosexual spouses.
Leahy has introduced a proposal to reverse that, a provision that gay rights organizations seek and that ordinarily the White House and all the committee's Democrats would back. In this case, though, its approval would almost certainly lead Republicans to abandon the bill, and it would face a quick demise on the Senate floor.
"It would kill the bill," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who was a member of the Gang of Eight but does not have a seat on the Judiciary Committee. "You'd lose the evangelicals, you'd lose the Catholic Church, and the issue is wending its way through the courts. ... And so for the amendment to be included is destructive to this carefully crafted compromise."
Two people familiar with the deliberations said the White House had suggested to Leahy that it would be best to put the controversy aside until the bill goes before the full Senate, and congressional officials said similar pleas had come from Democratic senators. All said they were not authorized to discuss the matter on the record and insisted on anonymity.
Leahy's comment to reporters was unlikely his final word on the issue, and hardly the first time he has demonstrated his independence on this and other bills. Most recently, he was the sole opponent of an amendment that passed 17-1 on Monday to make a third drunk driving conviction a deportable offense for immigrants in some instances.
Still, a vote on the proposal could create political difficulty for Democrats on the committee who support gay rights and are also members of the Gang of Eight, including Schumer and Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois. Durbin has told outside groups he will back the change if it is offered. Schumer hasn't said which way he would vote.
All eight authors of the bill have pledged to maintain the essential outlines of the legislation. A vote to add the gay rights provision could lead to approval on a party-line vote in committee.
AP White House Correspondent Julie Pace contributed to this report.