Friday May 03, 2013 | 10:40 AM

WASHINGTON – A gay rights proposal co-sponsored by Maine Sen. Susan Collins could become a major sticking point in the upcoming Senate debate over immigration as members of the “Gang of 8” try to preserve a delicate, bipartisan balance on their bill.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to begin work next week on a massive immigration reform bill that has drawn support from a broad range of groups spanning the political and cultural spectrums. But some conservative and religious groups are warning that the coalition could fall apart if committee chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., attempts to add a gay rights amendment to the bill.

The amendment would essentially treat same-sex couples the same as traditional couples when it comes to immigration. For instance, an American citizen who is legally married to his or her same-sex couple in another country would be allowed to sponsor their foreign-born partner for a green card.

Leahy and Collins, a Republican, are the lead co-sponsors of a separate bill, called the Uniting American Families Act, to accomplish the same thing. But Leahy, who is the Senate’s longest-serving member, has indicated that he may try to add the language to the larger immigration reform bill.

Amending the bill in committee would likely be a much easier road for Leahy, given the fact that only a majority vote is needed and Democrats hold most of the seats. Adding the gay rights language on the Senate floor would require 60 votes in the 100-seat Senate.

Asked for comment, Collins’ office did not specify whether the senator would support tacking the Uniting American Families Act language onto the larger immigration bill.

"I will work with the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Senator Leahy, to determine what is the best way to bring our bill before the Senate for consideration,” Collins said in a statement.

Gay rights advocates are pushing hard for the inclusion, seeing this as their best chance to address an issue they have been fighting to change for years. But others are warning that adding the amendment could scuttle the whole bill.

“If you inject something like this in the bill, it will die. The coalition behind it will fall apart,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., according to the New York Post. Rubio is one of four Republicans on the “Gang of 8” who negotiated the immigration bill.

The Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles called the gay rights issue “a poison pill.”

“This amendment would destroy the bipartisan consensus that was so difficult to forge,” Alfonso Aguilar, the organization's executive director, said in a statement.It would also undo the broad based coalition that for decades has fought for immigration reform. Many activists, groups and churches would be force to withdraw their support of the bill.”

Collins said it is time to change the law, however.

“My Maine offices have been contacted by same-sex couples who have found themselves forced to choose between the person they love and the country they love due to our current immigration laws,” Collins said. “More than two dozen countries already recognize same-sex couples for immigration purposes.  Our legislation would simply update our nation’s immigration laws to treat bi-national, same-sex permanent partners fairly.”

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Kevin Miller is Washington bureau chief for the Portland Press Herald and MaineToday Media. He has worked as a journalist in Maine for 6 ½ years, covering the environment, politics and the State House. Before arriving in Maine, he wrote about politics, government and education for newspapers in Virginia and Maryland.
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