Senate faces difficult path to immigration deal

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© Greg Nash

Originally published by The Hill

Senators are bracing for a three-week slog as they jockey for leverage on immigration.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) pledge to bring up an immigration bill early next month is adding a sense of urgency, but little clarity, to the search for legislation that could get 60 votes in the Senate.

Under McConnell’s promise, if lawmakers can’t get a larger agreement by Feb. 8, the Senate will turn to an immigration debate that the GOP leader says will be “fair and open” to both sides. What that means in practice is open to debate.

And the deal, which ended the shutdown, appears to have done nothing to bridge the deep divides in the chamber over what to do about the thousands of immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children who have been protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

Republicans quickly seized Tuesday on Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer’s (D-N.Y.) announcement that he was withdrawing his offer to President Trump to include funding for the U.S.-Mexico border wall in an immigration bill.

“It’s disappointing to see him now retracting his offer. Because that basically sets the DACA discussion back. … You’re never going to get a DACA solution without a plan, and a way to pay for that plan, on border security,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who has been at the center of the negotiations.

Schumer told Trump during a closed-door White House meeting last week that he would put the wall up for discussion, something he has portrayed as a major concession. But Democrats say the president backed away from the agreement.

“We’re going to have to start on a new basis, and the wall offer is off the table,” Schumer told reporters.

The fight over the wall is just the latest reason to doubt that both sides will be able to come together on an immigration bill by Feb. 8. Already, senators are breaking into competing factions.

In one corner is a bipartisan group stemming from the “Gang of Six” immigration bill that would provide a pathway to citizenship for DACA recipients.

“It turned into the 12 apostles from the Gang of Six, and it may grow to even larger,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who helped craft the bipartisan legislation, when asked how many senators attended a recent meeting of the group.

The bipartisan proposal would pair the DACA fix with a border security package, changes to family-based immigration and the elimination of the diversity visa lottery program.

While that legislation includes several of Trump’s priorities, the White House says it does not do nearly enough to reform the immigration system.

“It’s totally unacceptable to the president and should be declared dead on arrival,” said White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

The bill is also widely considered dead in the Republican-controlled House, where a group of conservatives have pitched legislation more in line with a wide-ranging wish list offered by the Trump administration last year.

Asked where the immigration debate is headed, Durbin said: “I don’t know the answer. … [But] I’ll see where it goes.”

Senators are widely aware that the House, where Republicans can pass a bill without Democratic support, is likely to press for a more conservative proposal. But there appears to be little consensus about how to handle the gap between the two chambers.

“The House strategy ought to be, for us, get 70 votes in the Senate. I think that’s the best House strategy,” said Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who helped craft the Gang of Six bill.

Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), by comparison, suggested that Senate Republicans needed to keep their counterparts in mind when crafting a bill.

“We have to be mindful of what can be passed in the House. … [Senate Republicans] have to be the ones representing that position,” he said.

Perdue is one of several Republicans who met with Trump this week following McConnell’s promise. The group has been working together for months to develop their own ideas on how to address DACA.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Perdue offered legislation last year to cut legal immigration in half, but that bill has no other co-sponsors.

Durbin knocked Perdue on Tuesday, saying he is “not a constructive part of this process. All he’s ever talked about is chain migration.”

GOP senators who attended the White House meeting said the talk was largely focused on running through the spectrum of bills that have been pitched as a potential solution for DACA, as well as discussing their own ideas that would address the parameter of a deal agreed to last month.

Cornyn said Republicans have been working to “come up with some ideas to address the four pillars … of what the president proposed and we talked to him about that.”

Cornyn was part of a group of negotiators made up of himself, Durbin and Reps. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). But those talks were derailed by the shutdown and appear to be on hold, with the House having left Washington after the end of the shutdown.

Despite the muddled path forward for a DACA bill, Perdue argued that the two sides are closer to a deal than they seem.

“We’re a lot closer than we’ve ever been on this deal, even though externally it may not look that way,” he said.

Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) said senators need to “ figure out what adds votes and what subtracts votes” as they plot their path forward.

Any immigration bill would need the support of both Democrats and Republicans to get through the Senate, and several senators say the final product needs to get at least 70 votes to give it the momentum it would need to get to Trump’s desk.

“You’re either going to get 70 votes or you’re going to get 50 votes, so a partisan product doesn’t get you to where you want to go,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said.

“If you’re going to make the play of trying to pick off a handful of the other side, it’s going to crash and burn.”

But that runs counter to a suggestion from Cotton, who is close with the White House and considered a hard-liner on immigration.

“I think there’s an opportunity to pass an immigration bill that is bipartisan. I’m beginning to doubt that opportunity includes Sen. Schumer and Sen. Durbin. They don’t have a monopoly on the immigration issue among 49 Democrats,” Cotton told reporters.

Asked about Cotton’s comments, Durbin argued that Cotton’s role in the immigration negotiations so far has been “totally negative.”

“He definitely does,” Durbin said, when asked if Cotton has influence with the White House. “He and [White House aide] Stephen Miller [are] blood brothers in this effort.”

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