Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire became one of the first Republicans to… (Chris Usher / CBS News )
WASHINGTON — Conservative Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte announced her support Sunday for the Senate's bipartisan immigration overhaul, lending momentum to the comprehensive measure.
"Our immigration system is completely broken," the New Hampshire lawmaker said on CBS' "Face the Nation." "This is a thoughtful, bipartisan solution to a tough problem."
Ayotte, who was elected in 2010, is the first Republican to endorse the measure apart from the four in the Senate's so-called Gang of Eight who crafted the bill: Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Marco Rubio of Florida and Jeff Flake of Arizona. Republican Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah voted for the bill in committee but has not committed to supporting the final version unless the Senate considers his proposals to require immigrants to pay back taxes and bar them from receiving certain tax credits.
Ayotte, a former prosecutor and New Hampshire attorney general, said the U.S. has 11 million people living "illegally in the shadows" while the legal immigration system is not "meeting the needs to grow our economy."
She wants more high-tech workers admitted to ensure the U.S. has the "best and brightest here … to grow our economy."
She praised the bill's path to citizenship for immigrants who are here without legal status as "tough but fair," saying they would "go to the back of the line, pay taxes, pass a criminal background check, [and] learn English."
A vote to start the floor debate is set for Tuesday. Several amendments are on tap before a vote on a final bill, which could come at month's end.
With 60 votes needed to avert a filibuster, Ayotte's support puts backers closer to the threshold. Democrats hold 52 seats, and two independents caucus with them. If all 54 voted to halt a filibuster — which is not likely — plus the four Republicans on the Gang of Eight, Ayotte would make 59.
As written, the legislation provides $4.5 billion for more drones, 3,500 customs officers and a double-layer fence in some areas along the border, with the goal of stopping 90% of illegal entries. Once the plan is in place, immigrants who pay fines, work and learn English will be eligible in 10 years for permanent legal status. After 13 years, they can become citizens. The process is half as long for agricultural workers who commit to jobs and adults who were brought to the country as minors and serve in the military or attend college.
In exchange for the path to citizenship, deals were cut to stem future illegal immigration by dramatically expanding guest-worker programs, including for farm laborers and highly skilled professionals.
Some Republicans continue to push for enhanced border security. That includes Rubio, a member of the Gang of Eight, who has said the bill cannot pass without tougher border provisions.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) cautioned on "Fox News Sunday" that the Senate bill "has zero chances of passing in the House."
Paul said he dislikes the plan's cap on agricultural workers. He also wants people who are in the U.S. on work visas to stand in line for U.S. citizenship in their country of origin, and he would not create a new path to citizenship.
"I'm really trying to make immigration work," he said. But other senators are "going to have to come to me and they're going to have to work with me to make the bill stronger if they want me to vote for it."
Lisa Mascaro in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.