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Gay benefits: Immigration bill deal-breaker?

Supporters of same-sex marriage demonstrate in front of

Supporters of same-sex marriage demonstrate in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington. The rights of married same-sex couples will come under scrutiny at the court in the second of two landmark cases being considered by the top judicial panel. (March 27, 2013) Credit: Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- One of the biggest potential deal-breakers for the massive immigration bill as a Senate committee begins working on it Thursday is a Democratic proposal to extend immigration benefits to gay and lesbian couples, experts and lawmakers said Wednesday.

That proposal is among the 300 amendments filed by Judiciary Committee members to the bipartisan bill that include some likely fixes, many poison pills and a lot of political posturing, advocacy groups said.

"The big, big issue is the gay and lesbian amendment," said Tamar Jacoby, executive director of ImmigrationWorks USA, a coalition of pro-immigration businesses and trade groups.

"If that comes up for a vote, all bets are off on this bill. A lot of Republicans will peel off," she said, including at least two of the eight senators who crafted the bipartisan legislation.

One of the sponsors, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), told Politico, "It will virtually guarantee that it won't pass."

That amendment was filed by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the Judiciary Committee chairman, who said, "We must end the discrimination that gay and lesbian families face in our immigration law."

Leahy Thursday will be running the first of what he has said will be at least three and likely more working sessions on the 844-page immigration bill.

The bill, which would be the most sweeping immigration overhaul since 1986, would toughen border security, offer legal status for the 11 million people here illegally, beef up interior enforcement, and expand and create new visas.

Leahy said he will take up a substitute amendment Thursday that provides technical fixes and then the bill's first title, which covers border security. He might not offer the controversial amendment until the bill goes to the Senate floor.

The committee, with its Democratic majority and its four members who represent half the eight senators who crafted the bill, is expected to approve the legislation -- but not before accepting some amendments.

About a half-dozen of the amendments proposed could pass and tip the balance too far toward border security or for immigrants' benefits.

One, for example, would require total control of the border instead of the 90 percent effectiveness to start the path to citizenship. Another would bar deportation to any country where the public order is dangerous, a designation that could apply to Mexico.

Republican opponents of the bill filed about two-thirds of the amendments aimed at making it about border security.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) filed 77 of them alone. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) authored 49 amendments.

Sessions wants to bar all low-income or needy immigrants from applying for legal status, to "close the many loopholes" on welfare.Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) filed an amendment that would strip the path to citizenship by barring citizenship for anyone willfully in this country illegally. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) strips everything out of the bill save border security.

"We have to sort thought he wheat and chaff to see what are good faith efforts," said Mary Giovagnoli, director of the Immigration Policy Center, which backs the bill. "Some of them are clearly not."

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