Far-reaching legislation that grants a chance at citizenship to millions of immigrants living illegally in the U.S. cleared a Senate committee Tuesday on a bipartisan vote that was a victory for Silicon Valley tech businesses that had spent weeks lobbying to loosen restrictions on hiring skilled foreign workers.
The committee's action came after supporters sidestepped a controversy over the rights of gay spouses.
The 13-5 vote cleared the way for an epic showdown on the Senate floor on the measure, which is one of President Barack Obama's top domestic priorities yet also gives the Republican Party a chance to recast itself as appealing to minorities.
The Judiciary Committee approved a compromise amendment that pleased technology companies and frustrated labor groups and engineers who believe expanding the H-1B temporary visa program will harm U.S. workers.
It was a deal that brought Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, over to the ranks of supporters, while also bolstering the high-profile backing of Silicon Valley companies such as Facebook.
Now, an expanding alliance that includes tech leaders, immigrant groups and conservatives is pushing for passage of the bill that would overhaul the legal immigration system and grant a citizenship path to an estimated 11 million immigrants in the U.S. illegally.
Under the tech worker agreement, senators dropped a provision that would have forced all U.S. companies to search for an "equally qualified" American before recruiting a skilled foreign worker.
The number of highly skilled temporary workers admitted to the country would rise from 85,000 annually to 110,000, with the possibility of an increase to 180,000 depending in part on unemployment levels.
Companies where foreign labor accounts for at least 15 percent of the skilled workforce would be subjected to tighter conditions than companies less dependent on H-1B 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.
A group representing computer workers criticized the deal, saying Hatch's amendments "will allow large multinational technology companies to replace American workers with lower-cost H-1B employees."
"It would be nice if Congress would look out for its citizens rather than the profit-driven interests of employers," said Marc Apter, president of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.
Apter added, however, that "we wouldn't threaten comprehensive immigration reform over marginal changes."
The group is happy about another provision that grants permanent residency to foreign students who earn math and science degrees, since this would allow those immigrants to bypass the temporary visa system.
Silicon Valley Leadership Group CEO Carl Guardino on Tuesday praised the committee's vote.
"Today's Senate action is a triple win: It strengthens Silicon Valley and America's Innovation Economy, continues to protect American workers, and ensures that American employers can compete globally with the best and brightest workers born both here and abroad," Guardino said.
To maintain their tenuous coalition with Republicans on immigration reform, top Democrats on Tuesday also persuaded Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., to hold back his amendment that would have granted equal immigration rights to same-sex couples.
While agreeing with the idea in theory, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said she worried the amendment would "blow the agreement apart."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.