WASHINGTON -- The bipartisan coalition behind a contentious overhaul of immigration laws stuck together on a critical early series of test votes yesterday, turning back challenges from conservative critics as the Senate Judiciary Committee refined legislation to secure the borders and grant eventual citizenship to millions living in the United States illegally.
In a cavernous room packed with lobbyists and immigration activists, the panel rejected numerous moves to impose tougher conditions on border security before immigrants who entered the country illegally could take the first steps along a new pathway toward citizenship.
Assuming the core political alignment remains intact, the committee is expected to approve the measure within two weeks and clear the way for an epic showdown on the Senate floor in June.
White House aides watched from the sidelines as the committee began its work on a bill that President Barack Obama has made a top priority in the opening months of his second term.
Painstakingly negotiated by a bipartisan "Gang of Eight," the measure would clear the way for tens of thousands of new high-tech and lesser-skilled workers to enter the country while also requiring all employers to check the legal status of their employees.
But it was the core trade-off -- securing the border against future illegal immigration while setting up a 13-year process by which immigrants unlawfully in the country could qualify for citizenship -- that generated the most controversy by far.
Republican critics made no claim they can defeat the bill in committee and concentrated instead on casting doubt on assertions that it will secure the U.S.-Mexican border before it allows immigrants illegally in the United States to take their first steps toward legal status.