WASHINGTON — The bipartisan coalition behind a contentious overhaul of immigration laws stuck together on a critical early series of test votes Thursday, turning back challenges from conservative critics as the Senate Judiciary Committee refined legislation to secure the borders and grant eventual citizenship to millions living in the United States illegally.
In a cavernous room packed with lobbyists and immigration activists, the panel rejected numerous moves to impose tougher conditions on border security before immigrants who entered the country illegally could take the first steps along a new path to citizenship.
Republicans Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Jeff Flake of Arizona — part of a bipartisan group that helped draft the measure — joined all 10 Democrats in blocking the changes. Senator Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican who has yet to announce a position on the overall legislation, opposed one and supported the others.
Assuming the core political alignment remains intact, the committee is expected to approve the measure within two weeks and clear the way for an epic showdown on the Senate floor in June.
White House aides watched from the sidelines as the committee began its work on a bill that President Obama has made a top priority.
Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat who helped draft the bill, said it would ‘‘change our policy so that the people who are needed to help our economy grow can come into this country, and at the same time we will note that when families are divided the humane thing to do is bring those families back together. Because we so dramatically stop the flow of illegal immigration, we can do both. And we do, and do it fairly.’’
Republican critics made no claim they can defeat the bill in committee and concentrated instead on casting doubt on assertions that it will secure the US -Mexican border before it allows immigrants illegally in the United States to take their first steps toward legal status.
‘‘The triggers in the bill that kick off legalization are weak,’’ said Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa, referring to a series of requirements that must be met before immigrants who are in the country illegally can apply for legal status. ‘‘No one can dispute that this bill is legalization first, enforcement later.’’
‘‘We’re poised for progress,’’ he declared.
The president chose the bustling Texas capital as a backdrop to refocus on higher wages, education, and a manufacturing-driven agenda that had been eclipsed by his struggles over gun control and spending cuts and his push for an overhaul of immigration laws.
‘‘You might not know this, because if you listen to all the doom and gloom in Washington and politics, and watching cable TV sometimes you might get kind of thinking nothing is going right,’’ Obama told students at a technology high school. ‘‘The truth is there’s a lot of reasons for us to feel optimistic about where we’re headed as a country.’’
‘‘Thanks to grit and determination of the American people, we cleared away the rubble of the worst economic crisis in our lifetime,’’ he continued.