The US Senate overwhelmingly voted on Tuesday to begin consideration of a White House-backed bill to overhaul the US immigration system, burying a procedural roadblock that opponents regularly use to delay or kill legislation.
With last November’s election indicating broad support for the landmark measure, even some senators who have expressed opposition voted to allow the debate and amendment process to commence.
By a vote of 82-15, the Senate cleared the way for consideration of the measure that could stretch through the end of this month.
Foes quickly offered amendments to change or even kill it.
Republican Senator Charles Grassley introduced a plan to require US President Barack Obama’s administration to certify “effective control over the entire southern border” for a period of six months before any of the 11 million undocumented residents in the US could begin applying for legal status.
“Border security first, legalize second,” Grassley said.
The legalization and ultimate citizenship for the 11 million is a central component of the bill. Democrats and some Republicans have vowed to block any measure that leaves their fate in doubt indefinitely.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Democrat and a chief supporter of the bill, filed three amendments, including one to provide to lawfully married same-sex couples protection that other spouses now enjoy.
The measure would allow US citizens to seek permanent resident status — a green card — for a foreign same-sex partner.
“Seeking equal protection under our laws ... is the right thing to do,” Leahy said.
The liberal Democrat had pulled the amendment from consideration by his panel last month, knowing it did not have enough support to be added to the bill.
Nearly 50 amendments had been filed by late on Tuesday.
The first of them could be voted on as early yesterday if Democrats and Republicans reach a deal on how to proceed with them.
Earlier on Tuesday, Obama sought to inject momentum into the push for immigration reform.
“If you genuinely believe we need to fix our broken immigration system, there’s no good reason to stand in the way of this bill,” Obama said at the White House just hours before the Senate staged its first vote on the measure.
“If you’re serious about actually fixing the system, then this is the vehicle to do it,” he said.
Obama, who won re-election last year thanks in part to strong support from Latino voters, has made immigration reform a top priority of his second term.
He had not given a major public address on the issue for some time, reflecting a White House strategy of not wanting to get in the way of the bipartisan bill’s progress in the Senate. His speech on Tuesday was the first major departure from that strategy.
The Senate bill would authorize billions of dollars in new spending for enhanced border security and create new visa programs for high and low-skilled workers in addition to providing a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants — many from Mexico and Central America.
As Congress plunged into a contentious debate on the bill, Senator Tim Kaine, a Democrat, delivered a Senate speech in support of the bill in Spanish.
Senate officials said it was the first time in at least decades that a floor speech was spoken entirely in a language other than English.
The bill, which has broad support from Obama’s Democrats, will need backing from some Republicans in order to give it momentum in the more conservative, Republican-controlled House of Representatives, where the pathway to citizenship provisions face deeper skepticism.
Four Republicans joined with four Democrats in writing the Senate bill earlier this year.