The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bipartisan immigration reform bill on Tuesday evening, ushering through to the full Senate a bill that would provide a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants.
The measure moved only after a controversial amendment that would have allowed same-sex couples to petition for legal status for a spouse or partner was dropped after Republicans made it clear they would not support the bill if the provision was included.
"I take the Republican sponsors of this important legislation at their word that they will abandon their own efforts if discrimination is removed from our immigration system," Sen. Patrick Leahy explained in a statement about his decision to withdraw the amendment.
"So, with a heavy heart, and as a result of my conclusion that Republicans will kill this vital legislation if this anti-discrimination amendment is added, I will withhold calling for a vote on it. But I will continue to fight for equality."
New York Sen. Chuck Schumer said he found it "excruciating" to agree to drop the provision. But "as much as it pains me, I cannot support this [LGBT] amendment if it would bring down the bill," he said.
The committee's final vote was 13-5. Three Republicans--Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Orrin Hatch of Utah--joined with Democrats to pass the amended bill. Five Republican senators voted against the bill: Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn of Texas, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Mike Lee of Utah and Jeff Sessions of Alabama.
Senators Flake and Graham are members of the bipartisan Gang of Eight that drafted the legislation, with Hatch siding with the group after he secured changes to provisions for hiring of high-skilled foreign workers. Hatch's amendment 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.
It also includes a mechanism that would increase the number of visas available for foreign workers if skilled Americans are not available, and decreases the visa allowance if there is a sufficient supply of qualified American workers.
The legislation now moves to the full Senate, where debate is expected to begin after Memorial Day. The committee's vote comes after the group debated more than 150 amendments over five days, with the Gang of Eight banding together to fend off any major changes to their original legislation. In its current form, the bill provides a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented workers, invests in border security and sets in motion a sweeping overhaul of the U.S. legal immigration.
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, one of the key champions of the bill, praised the committee's "extensive, open and transparent process" but conceded there was still work to be done in securing final passage.
"We have a historic opportunity to end today's de facto amnesty and modernize our immigration system to meet our 21st century needs," Rubio said in a statement. "I remain optimistic that the Senate, by improving the bill through and open and deliberative floor debate, will seize this opportunity."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell signaled Tuesday that he wouldn't block debate of the bill, telling reporters that the committee "hasn't in any fundamental way undone the agreements that were agreed by the eight senators, so I'm hopeful we can get a bill that we can pass here in the Senate."
President Obama praised the bill's movement to the full Senate and the work by the Gang of Eight, saying the legislation was "largely consistent with the principles of commonsense reform I have proposed and meets the challenge of fixing our broken immigration system."
"None of the Committee members got everything they wanted, and neither did I, but in the end, we all owe it to the American people to get the best possible result over the finish line," the president said in a statement. "I encourage the full Senate to bring this bipartisan bill to the floor at the earliest possible opportunity and remain hopeful that the amendment process will lead to further improvements."
NBC's Carrie Dann contributed to this report.