WASHINGTON (AFP) - The sweeping overhaul of the US immigration system took a major step towards viability on Tuesday when the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 13-5 to approve a landmark bill offering a path to citizenship for millions.
"It passes!" committee chairman Senator Patrick Leahy exalted moments after the vote, which followed days of marathon hearings and meetings to consider more than 200 amendments to the bill.
The legislation, which would legalise more than 11 million undocumented people currently living in the shadows and set most of them on a 13-year path to citizenship, is now set for a debate showdown on the Senate floor in June.
The bill, which requires major advances in border security and expansion of a comprehensive e-verify system for employers before any undocumented worker is allowed to pursue citizenship, will need 60 votes to pass the 100-seat Senate.
It would then head to the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, where its fate is uncertain and where lawmakers are crafting their own immigration legislation.
"We've got a ways to go but we will get there," exuberant Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer, one of four Democrats and four Republicans to craft the huge bill, said after the bipartisan vote.
Mr Leahy suffered a setback, however, when he was forced to withdraw his key amendments, a measure that would have allowed gay Americans to sponsor their foreign-born spouses for US residency and citizenship.
Senator Marco Rubio, perhaps the most high-profile Republican in the "Gang of Eight" that crafted the bill, had warned that fellow conservatives would vote against the measure en masse if it included Mr Leahy's provision.