The bipartisan vote came after Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., reached a compromise on visas for high-skilled workers. Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina joined Hatch in voting with Schumer and the panel's nine other Democrats in favor of the bill, NBC News reported.
The vote prompted shouts of "Si se puede!" and "Yes we can!" by some people who were on hand.
Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont cleared the decks for the committee vote by announcing he would not seek a vote on an amendment to recognize same-sex marriages in immigration law, a potential deal-breaker for conservatives, NBC said.
"I think the Gang of Eight has made a substantial contribution in moving the issue forward," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said. "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."
The package would create a 13-year path to citizenship for qualified undocumented immigrants, establish a program for low-skilled temporary workers, require additional border security efforts and put in place an employment verification system.
Some lawmakers have said they want even more done to secure the borders and prevent illegal immigration in the future, NBC noted.
Washington publication The Hill said the compromise would make the procedure for granting of H-1B visas more palatable to high-tech companies. Under an amendment sought by Hatch, a requirement that employers filing visa petitions to first offer a job to an "equally qualified" U.S. worker would only be imposed on "H-1B-dependent" companies. The definition of such companies would be clarified, The Hill said.
Another amendment by Hatch would shield non-H-1B-dependent companies from a rule preventing companies from displacing a U.S. worker within 90 days of filing a visa petition for an H-1B worker.
The exemption would apply only to science, technology, engineering and math positions. Displacing workers in other professions would still be prohibited within 90 days of visa petitions.
Hatch's amendments were opposed by labor leaders, The Hill said, but tech companies say they are needed to hire foreign workers with specialized skills, such as computer programmers, engineers and scientists.
"We remain opposed to Hatch's amendments that would undermine American workers' access to the jobs of the future," said Jeff Hauser, a spokesman for the AFL-CIO.