WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee this week takes up a sweeping overhaul of the nation's immigration system, which has bipartisan support but also faces some implacable Republican opposition.
The overhaul, an 844-page bill crafted by a bipartisan group of senators known as the Gang of Eight, will take its first step toward passage or failure Thursday when the committee begins debating and amending the complex legislation.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the committee chairman, said he expects senators on the panel to file "dozens of amendments" and has scheduled three working sessions.
He said the committee will continue meeting "every day and night thereafter if necessary" to finish work and hold a vote, likely at the end of the month.
The beginning of the long legislative process for the bill has sparked great anticipation among immigrant advocates, corporations, labor unions, farms, restaurants and others with a stake in the complex act. Nearly 140 entities hired lobbyists to weigh in on immigration, records show.
The public, however, has yet to focus on the immigration overhaul bill, according to a Pew Research Center survey taken during the final week of April. It found that 38 percent don't know what to think, 33 percent favor it and 28 percent oppose it.
The legislation contains several compromises and sticking points. One is what supporters call its heart and opponents call its main drawback: a path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million who are here without legal immigration status.
The amendments, which must be filed by Tuesday at 5 p.m., are expected to take aim at the level of border security and how to measure it, availability of agricultural and high-tech immigrant workers and whether to include same-sex couples in family reunification policies.
Democrats hold the majority on the 17-member panel, and are expected to be able to pass the bill out of committee along partisan lines, if need be.
But bill supporters say their goal is to do it with as many Republican votes as they can, to help them win a big majority in the full Senate and a better chance of passage in the Republican-controlled House -- two big battles that lie ahead.
"We're looking not to get 61 votes -- obviously that's the minimum. I'd like to get a majority on both sides," Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), a key bill sponsor, said recently. The Senate has 53 Democrats, most of whom are expected to support the bill, 45 Republicans and two independents.
Schumer and other backers of the bill will have to allow some amendments to pass. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a member of the Gang of Eight and its most important conservative -- who is a Hispanic Republican -- said the bill needs changes.
The composition of the committee portends a dynamic debate over the next few weeks.
It also includes some of the harshest critics of the bill -- notably Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), leader of the Senate opposition to a path to citizenship for noncitizens who are already here, and tea party-backed freshman Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). Since the bill was filed last month, Sessions has issued daily critiques and attacks.
In the case of Utah, the senior senator, Orrin Hatch, said he might support the bill, but his tea party colleague, Mike Lee, has declared his opposition. Both are Republicans.
Ira Mehlman, media director for FAIR (the Federation for American Immigration Reform) based in Washington, D.C., which opposes much of the bill, said he's concerned critics might not get a fair hearing in the committee.
"Everybody who disagreed with the Gang of Eight was shut out of the negotiations," Mehlman said.
Lynn Tramonte, deputy director of America's Voice, which is lobbying for the immigration bill, said she has high hopes because she thinks Democrats hold the upper hand. "We have an historic opportunity," she said.