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With high-tech visa compromise, immigration reform proponents win GOP ally

With a final committee vote on a comprehensive immigration reform bill finally in sight, proponents of immigration reform won the support of a key Republican panel member after hammering out a bipartisan compromise dealing with visas for high-skilled foreign workers.

Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, long considered a Republican swing vote on the 18-member Senate Judiciary Committee, announced Tuesday night that he will vote the comprehensive immigration reform bill out of committee after the panel approved language relaxing restrictions on employers seeking to hire foreign workers for high-tech jobs. But he cautioned that he may vote against the bill on Senate floor if other changes to the legislation are not made.

Gary Cameron / Reuters

Sen. Orrin Hatch, the co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee, questions witnesses during testimony in Washington May 21, 2013.

The new language was the result of a deal between Hatch and Gang of Eight negotiator Democrat Chuck Schumer of New York, designed specifically to woo the Utah Republican but risking the ire of labor groups who believe the changes will hurt American workers who are qualified for the same high-tech jobs.

"We have been and remain opposed to Hatch's amendments," AFL-CIO spokesman Jeff Hauser said of the compromise language. "On the same say day that the Senate is grilling Apple for tax avoidance, it is a mistake to support an amendment so that tech companies can avoid hiring qualified American workers."

The Hatch-Schumer amendment passed by voice vote. Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the panel, attempted to change its provisions, but his amendments were voted down

As written, the bill would initially raise the cap the number of H1-B visas from 65,000 to 110,000 -- with provisions to increase that number to 180,000.

Gang of Eight negotiator Sen. Marco Rubio, who has worked to garner support for the legislation among his fellow Republicans, welcomed Hatch's backing for the bill. 

"The Senate Judiciary Committee’s approval of Senator Hatch’s proposal to improve the H-1B visa provisions in the immigration legislation address key concerns shared by many conservatives," he said in a statement. "We must modernize our broken legal immigration system to meet the needs of America’s 21st century economy and create jobs. Senator Hatch’s amendment provides important protections for American workers while also ensuring that fast-growing and high-tech firms can continue to create jobs here in America."

Earlier Tuesday, the committee voted down an amendment proposed by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz that would have stripped out the Gang of Eight's foundational principle that qualified undocumented immigrants to the United States should be eligible to work towards full citizenship.  The amendment failed 5-13 , with Hatch joining Gang of Eight Republican Sens. Jeff Flake and Lindsey Graham in voting with Democrats against the measure.

Cruz, discussed as a possible 2016 GOP presidential candidate, said the inclusion of the path to citizenship would "only encourage others to violate the law."

The Tea Party-affiliated senator added that, if the pathway remains in the bill, the reform effort will be voted down in the Republican-controlled House. That assertion was flatly rejected by Schumer, who retorted that "if we don't have a path to citizenship, there is no reform."

Another Cruz-sponsored amendment that would have made undocumented immigrants ineligible for means-tested federal benefits failed 6-12.

Hatch voted in support of that measure.

A few issues remain - including a possible high-stakes discussion about whether LGBT foreign nationals should be eligible to apply for green cards through their partners and spouses in the United States.

But senators hope to wrap up their committee work as soon as tonight and advance the amended bill to the full Senate, which is expected to take up the bill this summer.

On Tuesday, the top Republican in the upper chamber said he will not block the immigration debate on the Senate floor.

"With regard to getting started on the bill, it’s my intention if there is a motion to proceed required, to vote for the motion to proceed so we can get on the bill and see if it we’re able to pass a bill that actually moves the ball in the right direction,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said – indicating that he won’t support using Senate rules and procedures to keep the chamber from debating the legislation.

McConnell also said that he’s “hopeful” that a comprehensive immigration bill can pass the Senate.

“I think the Gang of Eight has made a substantial contribution in moving the issue forward…I’m told that the Judiciary Committee hasn’t in any fundamental way undone the agreements that were agreed by the eight senators," he said. "So I’m hopeful we can get a bill that we can pass here in the Senate.”

NBC's Kasie Hunt contributed to this report.

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