But even as the committee passed a compromise bill by 12 votes to 6 Monday, congressional forces hostile to many of its key components were gathering for a Capitol Hill showdown.
The Judiciary package – including the McCain/Kennedy plan for so-called earned legalization and a separate guest worker proposal – was cleared through the committee by 6 p.m. Monday evening.
All eight Democrats, led by Senator Edward Kennedy, voted for the compromise package. Four Republicans, including committee chairman Arlen Specter, also voted yes.
The Judiciary measure, forged from the guts of three separate bills proposed by committee members, places strong emphasis on enhanced border controls but, significantly, also sets aside proposals to make illegality a criminal offense and potential felons of those who aid the illegal or undocumented.
The committee’s compromise package is now on the Senate floor alongside a sharply contrasting bill written by Senate Majority Leader, Bill Frist.
The expectation is that the full 100-member Senate will vote on either the Judiciary bill, the security-oriented Frist bill, or a combination of both by Friday, April 7 when the Senate is due to rise for the Easter recess.
At the same time, however, observers were cautious this week about the prospects for the kind of reform that would ultimately include relief for the illegal and undocumented.
Whatever bill emerges from Senate deliberations will be thrown into the likely contentious forum that is the House/Senate conference stage.
At that point, any Senate proposal will collide with the House of Representatives approved Sensenbrenner/King bill, a measure that focuses entirely on security and border control and does not allow for earned legalization.
“The more progressive the Senate bill the harder it will be to reconcile it with the House bill,” said one well placed observer.
In the meantime, however, reform backers were lauding the Judiciary Committee vote, which came on the heels of a series of weekend rallies by pro-reform groups in a number of U.S. cities, most notably Los Angeles where an estimated half million people marched.
“The country has spoken, and today the Senate listened,” Sen. Kennedy said in a statement after a vote that clearly carried his mark.
“No issue goes to the heart of who we are as Americans more than immigration. I am proud of my colleagues for coming together in a bipartisan way to address this great challenge,” Kennedy said.
Whether Kennedy’s pride in bipartisanship will survive the coming debate remains to be seen.
But one aspect of the Judiciary vote attests to Kennedy’s undoubted skill at forging alliances with members of the GOP.
When it came to a committee vote on the critical McCain/Kennedy earned legalization idea, an amendment supporting it was offered to the committee not by Kennedy, but by Senator Lindsey Graham.
A staunchly conservative Republican from South Carolina – the very antithesis of Kennedy – Graham is also a close political ally of Senator John McCain who is Kennedy’s lead partner on immigration reform.
McCain is expected to map out the mine-strewn legislative process ahead when he attends a Bronx rally Friday organized by the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform.
Meanwhile, passage of the Judiciary bill coincided with the arrival in Washington of a visiting group of Irish politicians.
The all-party Oireachtas Foreign Affairs Committee delegation includes TDs Michael Woods, Liz O’Donnell, Bernard Allen and Michael D. Higgins.
The delegation has planned meetings on Capitol Hill with the leading figures in the immigration reform debate.
That debate now faces a variety of possible conclusions: from resolution to stalemate to absolute deadlock.
Increasingly, some observers say, President Bush could emerge as a tie-breaker if the House and Senate are unable to reach an agreement in the days ahead.