The Senate pushed landmark immigration legislation past final hurdles Wednesday, pointing to near-certain passage soon of a measure that would open the door to U.S. citizenship for millions of people.
The bill sidestepped several procedural obstacles with votes to spare, demonstrating it commands well over the 60 votes needed to pass the Senate. That could happen early as Thursday, with the next stop in the House, where an uncertain future awaits.
The White House-backed bill would pour billions into border security, doubling border patrol agents to 40,000 and completing a 700-mile fence, as well as offer a 13-year path to citizenship to some 11 million immigrants now in the United States illegally.
“Eleven million people live in the shadows and they live here in de facto amnesty and, by God, they are being exploited every single day,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
McCain is part of the Gang of 8, the bipartisan group of senators working on the bill.
“We’ll be the most militarized border since the fall of the Berlin Wall,” he said.
"A permanent, common-sense solution to our dysfunctional system is really in sight," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. "It is my hope that our colleagues in the House will follow the Senate's lead and work to pass bipartisan reform and do it now."
Opponents weren't convinced.
"It continues to promote false promises that the border would be truly secure," said Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa.
"I understand why conservatives are upset. We shouldn’t do this for politics. I can tell you politically this is as much a negative as it is a positive. People are really upset and I respect it and I understand it,” says Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.
The bill is a tough sell, even though many Republicans want it to keep the party viable in the future since Hispanic voters tend to vote Democrat. Only 27 percent of Hispanics voted for Mitt Romney in 2012, a drop since George W. Bush won 44 percent in 2004.
Prospects were anything but clear in the GOP-controlled House, where many conservatives oppose citizenship or even legalization for people in this country illegally. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said he has no plans to hold a vote on the legislation coming from the Senate.
"We are not going to take up the Senate bill," Boehner told Republicans in a morning meeting, according to Rep. John Fleming, R-La.
The House Judiciary Committee planned to vote Wednesday on legislation requiring employers to verify their workers' legal status. That would be the third in a series of single-issue immigration bills the committee has acted on as it takes a piecemeal approach to overhauling the immigration system, in contrast with the Senate's comprehensive bill.
In the Senate, after the addition of $38 billion in provisions strengthening border security, doubling the size of the border patrol, and completing hundreds of miles of fencing, the legislation looked likely to command support from more than a dozen Republicans on final passage.
That's more than enough to ensure the 60-vote margin needed for passage, as all 52 Democrats and the two independents who usually vote with them look likely to stick together.
Supporters rounded up 67 or more "yes" votes on each of three tallies Wednesday. One vote overcame a Republican budget objection, the second was to approve changes to the bill including billions in new border security spending, and the third allowed moving forward with the amended version of the bill.
Supporters dodged a potential obstacle when the Supreme Court on Wednesday struck down a provision of a federal law denying federal benefits to married gay couples. That would allow gay married Americans to sponsor their spouses for U.S. residency in the way straight married Americans can.
Gay rights supporters had been pushing for the immigration bill to include such a provision, but Republicans had warned it would sink the immigration bill.
The Supreme Court's ruling made it unnecessary, which was the outcome supporters were hoping for.
As time drew short to cut any last-minute deals before final action on the bill, hope was rapidly fading of negotiating a few final amendments that could bring even more Republicans on board.
Sen. Rob. Portman, R-Ohio, was pushing an amendment to strengthen an electronic employment verification program made mandatory in the bill. "I can't vote for (the bill) without it," Portman said.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., sought changes to a new agriculture workers program that he said makes it too easy for farm workers to get permanent U.S. residency.
But the measures sought by Portman and Chambliss are being opposed by some immigrant advocacy groups, and some Senate Democrats believe the bill has enough Republican support as is without pursuing more changes.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.