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Immigration reform priority for senators

| Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013, 9:09 p.m.

WASHINGTON — A sense of urgency permeated the Senate's first immigration reform hearing of the 113th Congress on Wednesday as lawmakers and Obama administration officials said they see a rare chance for compromise on one of the nation's most divisive issues.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the United States is “at a unique moment in history” with a real chance to pass bipartisan immigration reform in this session of Congress.

“For the first time in recent memory, we are seeing a bipartisan consensus emerge about what those commonsense steps should be,” Napolitano said. “We must not miss this opportunity.”

President Obama, in his state of the union speech on Tuesday night, urged lawmakers to pass a bipartisan bill that he can sign into law. Senate Republicans have expressed an increased willingness to tackle the issue as a way to reach out to Latino voters, who overwhelmingly supported Obama and Democratic congressional candidates in last fall's election.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the committee's chairman, said he is determined that the panel will vote on legislation this spring. If the committee is able to pass a bill, the legislation would then go to a vote of the full Senate.

Two Democrats and two Republicans on the committee are among a bipartisan group of eight senators working on a compromise bill that includes stronger border security and an earned pathway to citizenship for the 11 million illegal immigrants already living in the United States.

“Our window of opportunity will not stay open long,” Leahy said. “If we are going to act on this issue, we must do so without delay.”

While senators asked tough questions of Napolitano and other witnesses, the overall tenor of the hearing was much more positive about immigration reform than a hearing in the House last week.

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