Inside the Senate's ugly immigration breakdown

Inside the Senate’s ugly immigration breakdown

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Originally published by Politico

If the Senate was ever going to pass a bill to protect hundreds of thousands of young immigrants from deportation, it needed James Lankford.

A conservative senator from Oklahoma with a youthful visage, Lankford had been working since September to help so-called Dreamers. The 49-year-old Lankford dutifully attended bipartisan meetings, cobbling together ideas and trying to enlist support for a bipartisan deal.

But when the group showed him the latest draft of their plan Tuesday night, Lankford was stunned. It was far from what he had expected.

“I looked through the outlines of the proposal and realized: ’This is nothing close to what we’ve talked about,’” Lankford said.

On Thursday, Lankford voted against the last-gasp proposal from Sens. Angus King (I-Maine) and Mike Rounds (R-S.D.). So did North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis, another critical Republican on immigration. And they were joined by a trio of GOP senators who backed the comprehensive immigration bill that passed the Senate in 2013 and were seen as gettable this time: Bob Corker of Tennessee, Dean Heller of Nevada and Orrin Hatch of Utah.

The Senate’s spectacular failure to address the plight of the most sympathetic batch of immigrants in the country illegally — a group that President Donald Trump once declared he had “great love” for — was the latest display of legislative ineptitude in the upper chamber. This account, detailing the demise of the months-long immigration push, is based on interviews with more than a dozen senators and aides who’ve worked on the issue since Trump announced last fall he was rescinding the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

While senators vowed to try again, there’s no apparent reason to think the next time will be any different. Immigration has always been polarizing and difficult to tackle, but Trump’s ascendance has made it that much more so, diminishing trust and depleting the group of dealmaking senators it would take to clear the chamber’s 60-vote threshold.

“I’m real worried about that. I’m worried about the politics on both the far right and far left. And how do we find the center?” said Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), a member of the centrist coalition.

The debate over the fate of Dreamers shifted last August, when Trump endorsed a proposal that would make steep cuts to legal immigration proposed by hard-line Sens. David Perdue (R-Ga.) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.). Trump then moved to rescind the DACA program the next month, putting the program on the lap of Congress.

As winter settled over Washington, Trump implored senators in mid-January to cut a deal — even if it contained “things I'm not in love with.” But as senators got to work on a simple agreement to protect Dreamers and boost border security, Trump made new demands. His "four pillars" — including politically toxic reforms to the diversity lottery and family migration that Democrats could never get behind — became the GOP benchmark.

Come Thursday’s vote, even though Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and the Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas gently coaxed undecided Republicans to oppose the bipartisan plan, most of the finger-pointing for the failure was directed at the White House.

“The administration made it difficult for some [Republicans] to try to publicly support anything,” one Republican senator said.

It wasn’t until the final hours that people in both parties knew the effort was doomed. Even after Lankford bailed, senators and aides working on the bill said they were bullish that they could get fence-sitting Republicans to come their way.

But the Trump administration had other ideas. A statement issued by the Department of Homeland Security in the wee hours of Thursday morning doused any hope of securing 60 votes. It charged that the King-Rounds bill would turn the United States into “a sanctuary nation where ignoring the rule of law is encouraged.”

“The DHS release was like nothing I’ve ever seen from a government agency. It was more like from a political campaign. And it wasn’t very accurate. And that’s putting it mildly,” King said in an interview.

Only eight Republicans voted for King’s proposal; 36 GOP senators backed the president’s stricter hard-line plan.

But it wasn’t just Republicans who were divided. Democrats were going through their own internal strife leading up to the vote.

Party leaders had been bullish that if they could get 11 Republicans on board, the entire 49-member Democratic Caucus would band together to put it over the top. Once it was clear the Republican votes wouldn’t materialize, though, party leaders braced for a mass defection of their liberal members.

In the end, only three Democrats voted “no,” including New Mexico Sens. Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall, and California Sen. Kamala Harris. Yet that small number did not reflect the hard feelings within the conference. Weeks earlier, Democratic leaders had relented in a fight over the budget after McConnell promised a vote on immigration — and this was hardly the result rank-and-file members envisioned.

Asked whether he was pleased with how caucus leaders handled the debate, Heinrich replied: “I’m not going to Monday-morning quarterback anybody’s efforts. Everybody was trying to get something done here.”

Harris’ “no” vote caused the most apparent drama on the Democratic side.

As senators announced their vote on the bipartisan plan, the potential 2020 presidential candidate and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) spoke tensely on the Senate floor. Harris then departed to the Democratic cloakroom. A few minutes later, she emerged and announced her “no” vote to audible gasps.

Some Democrats were furious.

“If Sen. Harris tries to use this no vote to get to the left of her colleagues in Iowa ... she’ll be rightly and roundly pummeled for it. Some Democrats fought for Dreamers today, others fought for themselves,” said a Democratic staffer whose boss was fighting for the bill.

Lily Adams, a spokeswoman for Harris, responded: “Sen. Harris voted her conscience on an issue she’s worked on for years, and that impacts California more than any other state in the country. Dreamers have been and remain her No. 1 priority.”

Before the prospect of failure came into focus in recent days, some senators involved in the bipartisan talks began mulling an emergency backup.

It was “somewhat jokingly referred to as the ‘break the glass’ option,” one senator closely involved in the bipartisan talks said in an interview. “Which is, 'What the hell do we do if we get to Thursday night and nothing gets 60?'”

The fallback, floated by Sens. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), would have extended DACA protections for three more years in exchange for three years of border funding. But it never gained serious traction: Many senators simply didn’t want to discuss the possibility of failure on a permanent fix.

“The response was: ‘Let’s try harder.’ So maybe I was too willing to give up,” Heitkamp said with a hint of sarcasm.

Privately, Democrats said it was Republicans such as Tillis and Lankford who were too willing to give up. They said those senators never seemed particularly interested in how far Democrats were moving toward Trump and his border wall.

Endorsing $25 billion in wall funding was a real concession, they believed, considering how much their base hated the idea. They didn’t see the same give in the GOP.

“It cannot be overstated. They have not moved one inch,” said a Democratic aide of Tillis and Lankford.

Lankford said he worked his “tail off” before dropping off this week. And Tillis attended meetings but began to distance himself from the talks in January after the meeting between lawmakers and Trump at the White House, where the president said he’d back whatever deal they sent him. Despite the president's encouraging words, Tillis came away from the meeting believing that Democrats wouldn't support a plan that Trump would actually sign.

“They’re going down a path that won’t produce an outcome,” Tillis recalled thinking.

The distrust didn't stop there. Two days after the White House meeting, the president backtracked. Trump rejected the first bipartisan plan, written by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).

And on Thursday, Graham found himself under attack from homeland security and White House officials who anonymously bashed him in a phone call with reporters.

“So, as long as Steve Miller is running the White House and Tom Tancredo is in charge of DHS, we’re going nowhere fast,” Graham said. Miller is a senior White House aide and immigration hard-liner. And a former aide to Tancredo — the onetime Colorado representative who is similarly conservative on immigration — works as a press aide at DHS.

“You’ve got the two most extreme characters in the town running the show. What do you expect?” Graham added.

The final nail for some Republicans was seeing Schumer’s name unexpectedly placed on the bipartisan proposal as one of its co-sponsors. Maine's Sen. Susan Collins complained to Senate floor staff about it ahead of Thursday’s vote. Though Schumer’s office said he had no hand in writing the bill, it nonetheless gave the White House and its allies all the ammunition they needed to thrash the “Schumer-Rounds-King” proposal.

And now, Democrats are on record as supporting things much of the base despises — the wall, immigration restrictions on DACA recipients’ parents and a path to citizenship for significantly fewer undocumented immigrants than the 11 million who would have been helped by the 2013 legislation — with nothing to show for it.

Indeed, the chief GOP sponsor of the compromise found an upside in what seemed like a wasted exercise: Republicans now have a much better sense of how far the minority will bend on immigration.

“That,” said Rounds, “is a big step.”

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