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Bipartisan coalition on US immigration bill clears first conservative road block

WASHINGTON -- The bipartisan coalition behind a contentious overhaul of immigration laws stuck together on a critical early series of test votes Thursday, turning back challenges from conservative critics as the Senate Judiciary Committee refined legislation to secure the nation's borders and offer eventual citizenship to millions living illegally in the United States.

In a cavernous room packed with lobbyists and immigration activists, the panel rejected three attempts by opponents of the bill to impose tougher conditions on border security before unauthorized immigrants could apply for legal status. Republicans Lindsey Graham and Jeff Flake — part of a bipartisan group that helped draft the measure — joined all 10 Democrats in blocking each of the changes.

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 where it faces an uncertain future and then in the Republican-led House.

Some of the House Republicans, warily eyeing possible challenges in primary elections from conservative members of their own party, may feel they have to take a strong stand against the measure to keep their seats safe.

The Republican leader of the House, Speaker John Boehner, who has been cautions in his public comments on how to proceed on immigration, promised Thursday the House would act.

“I just want to say this: the House is going to work its will on immigration reform,” Boehner said at a news conference. “This is an issue that has been around for too long and needs to be dealt with. And I intend to see that it is dealt with.”

In the Senate, 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 in the White House.

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.

Sen. Charles Schumer, a Democrat who helped draft the bill, said it would “change our policy so that the people who are needed to help our economy grow can come into this country, and at the same time we will note that when families are divided the humane thing to do is bring those families back together.

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