Drew Angerer / The New York Times via Redux Pictures
Supporters of immigration reform cheer after the Senate Judiciary Committee approved legislation to overhaul the nation's immigration laws on Tuesday.
A sweeping bill to overhaul the nation's immigration system cleared its first major hurdle late Tuesday night, with the 18-member committee charged with completing a first round of legislative edits voting to advance the amended bill to the full Senate.
The vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee was 13-5.
Three Republicans - Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Orrin Hatch of Utah -- joined the panel's 10 Democrats to vote in favor of the bill.
A group gathered on Capitol Hill cheers after a Senate committee pushed the Gang of Eight's immigration plan through for a vote on the Senate floor.
Flake and Graham are both members of the bipartisan "Gang of Eight" that originally drafted the 844-page immigration legislation. Hatch's support was won after the Utah lawmaker secured changes to the bill's provisions for the hiring of high-skilled foreign workers.
Five Republicans - Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn of Texas, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Mike Lee of Utah and Jeff Sessions of Alabama -- voted against the legislation.
The measure will now head to the Senate floor.
In a statement, President Barack Obama - who has made the passage of immigration reform the top legislative goal of his second term -- lauded the committee for its "open and inclusive process" and said the legislation as approved is "largely consistent with the principles of commonsense reform I have proposed."
"I encourage the full Senate to bring this bipartisan bill to the floor at the at the earliest possible opportunity and remain hopeful that the amendment process will lead to further improvements," he said.
Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who does not serve on the panel but is a crucial player in wooing fellow conservatives to support the bill, similarly praised the committee but noted that "work still remains to be done."
"Immigration reform will not become law unless we can earn the confidence of the American people that we are solving our immigration problems once and for all," he said, adding that he is "optimistic" that the bill can be satisfactorily improved on the Senate floor.
On Tuesday, the top Republican in the upper chamber affirmed that he will not block the immigration proposal from being debated by the full Senate.
“I think the Gang of Eight has made a substantial contribution in moving the issue forward," Sen. Mitch McConnell told reporters. "I’m told that the Judiciary Committee hasn’t in any fundamental way undone the agreements that were agreed by the eight senators, so I’m hopeful we can get a bill that we can pass here in the Senate.”
In an emotional moment shortly before final passage, committee chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont announced that he would not call for a vote on an amendment that would have recognized the marriages of same-sex spouses in immigration law.
Republicans in the bipartisan Gang of Eight said the LGBT measure would have broken apart the fragile coalition crafted by the bill's drafters.
As written, the bill would open a 13-year path to citizenship for qualified undocumented immigrants, establish a new program for low-skilled temporary workers, require new border security strategies and implement a nationwide employment verification system.
Conservatives who oppose the reform proposal say that it fails to secure the border adequately and does not do enough to prevent a new wave of illegal immigration into the country.
Throughout five days of marathon work sessions, senators on the panel tweaked the bill's provisions for modifying immigrant worker programs, tracking foreign nationals who overstay visas and implementing new border security measures along the nation's southern border.
But Flake and Graham -- the two Republican members of the Gang of Eight who serve on the committee - joined with Democrats to vote down amendments deemed a threat to the "Gang of Eight" compromise.
When the final vote was announced, attendees in the hearing room broke into cheers of "Si se puede!" and "Yes we can!"
This story was originally published on Tue May 21, 2013 8:04 PM EDT