A bipartisan Senate proposal to protect thousands of young undocumented immigrants from deportation is struggling to survive.
While negotiators in both parties reached a tentative agreement on Wednesday evening, prospects were dim amid strong opposition from President Donald Trump and Senate Republicans as well as tepid buy-in from Democrats.
Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri said some of her fellow Democrats are “upset about” certain elements of the agreement, which she supports: “By and large, I’m hopeful that we’ll get there, but some of this stuff is hard to take” for other Democrats.
Likewise, Republicans followed Trump’s lead after he urged the Senate to defeat any amendment that does not mirror his own, which tackles border security, a path to citizenship for those in the Deferred Action for Child Arrivals program as well as cuts to legal immigration through the diversity lottery and family-based migration.
“The starting point should be something we know the president will support,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who has been in talks with Democrats on immigration in recent weeks. “If it doesn’t have a reasonable approach for each of the four pillars, I can’t support it.”
Senators in both parties raced to finish the text of their amendment in time for the Senate to consider their bipartisan proposal before the week ends. On Wednesday evening, a group of eight Republicans and eight Democrats co-sponsored the bill — leaving the measure several votes short of the required 60 votes.
The bipartisan amendment is led by Sens. Angus King (I-Maine) and Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) and it provides $25 billion for border security, a 10- to 12-year pathway to citizenship for hundreds of thousands of young undocumented immigrants and restrictions on those immigrants’ parents becoming citizens. It would also bar legal permanent residents from sponsoring adult, unmarried children.
The proposal also outlines priorities for immigration enforcement, a move likely to rile immigration hardliners. The amendment prioritizes people convicted of crimes and those who pose a threat to national security. But when it comes to people only guilty of “unlawful presence” — in other words, law-abiding undocumented immigrants — it calls on immigration officers to focus on those who arrived after June 30, 2018.
Senators were also discussing reallocating the diversity lottery’s 55,000 annual visas to a merit-based system, but that language was dropped Wednesday, a source familiar with the talks said.
“Each side has had to give a great deal, but we are closer than we have ever been to passing something in the Senate to help the Dreamers,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).
The lead sponsors of the bill were Schumer, King, Rounds and Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.).
Despite that progress, Republicans who are committed to Trump’s plan showed no signs of deviating from his four-pillar foundation to a narrower bill that would focus simply on border security and a path to legalization for some undocumented immigrants. Privately, some Republicans fumed a bill being sold as bipartisan had the fingerprints of Democratic leaders on it.
“The four pillars are what he would sign into law,” said Sen. David Perdue of Georgia, a top Trump ally who panned the bipartisan agreement. “It also has to pass the House. This is the question for the United States Senate: Do we want to pass a bill, or do we want to pass a law?”
Democratic leaders gauged support from outside allies on the potential outlines of the bipartisan deal while awaiting its details, according to an aide. Democrats met at 5 p.m. Monday to discuss the proposal and senators were optimistic that their party would mostly fall in line.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) left the caucus meeting predicting “there will be consensus” among the minority around a “very simple” proposal, though he declined to say whether the bipartisan group’s plan had been scaled back to win such broad support.
The centrist proposal is a last-minute response to most senators’ view that the president’s framework, and its cuts to legal immigration, cannot pass the Senate and its supermajority threshold. Short of a compromise on a narrow bill, some senators argue that nothing will pass to address the DACA program Trump is rescinding.
“We can do what we’ve done for the last 35 years, just quit and continue this mess. Or we can make this a substantial down payment on fixing a broken system,” Graham said. Asked about what happens if the president explicitly condemns the deal, he replied: “Then we won’t go very far, and we’ll have three presidents that failed: Obama, Bush and Trump.”
“Everything’s a negotiation. We’re a separate branch,” Flake said. He added that Trump “can veto it, or he can sign it, but we’ve got to pass it.”
Senate GOP leaders have backed Trump’s framework that would include steep cuts to legal immigration. If all Democrats support the compromise — hardly a guarantee — at least 11 Republicans will also need to back it to reach the Senate’s 60- vote threshold. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) supports Trump, and whether he whips against the bipartisan bill will determine its fate.
The president himself urged senators to defeat anything that falls short of his bill’s four pillars: border wall money, a path to citizenship for 1.8 million young immigrants, cuts to family-based immigration and elimination of the diversity lottery.
“I am asking all senators, in both parties, to support the Grassley bill and to oppose any legislation that fails to fulfill these four pillars — that includes opposing any short-term ‘Band-Aid’ approach,” Trump said in a statement Wednesday.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) is the lead legislative sponsor of the president’s proposal. Grassley said that bill “is the only bill [Trump will] sign.”
The Trump administration also rushed to douse cold water on the bipartisan effort.
“It will never get a vote in the House, it will lead to the legalization of not 2 million but ultimately almost 10 million (via chain migration),” a senior administration official said of the bipartisan plan. “It’s a proposal going nowhere fast. It’s not even Schumer 2.0 — it’s Schumer 1.0.”
Those developments came as McConnell and Schumer set up the first amendment votes on immigration. Schumer made a procedural move Wednesday that could allow the bipartisan group to receive a vote on their plan.
The day started with one last meeting of two dozen senators who have gathered for weeks to hash something out on immigration. Leadership of the two sides were represented by Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Gardner, although lawmakers leaving the meeting were uncertain whether all participants at the gatherings would ultimately attach their name to the still-forming agreement.
It didn’t take long for confusion to set in. Gardner released his own, separate proposal with Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.). And some members of the bipartisan group didn’t initially say they will sign on to the bill.
Kaine predicted the group would have a “sizable number of co-sponsors.” He suggested that the Trump framework could come up for a vote first, given the likelihood it would fail to get 60 votes. Coons added that his colleagues should “work as diligently as we possibly can today to get a consensus bill” but added that multiple options may yet emerge from the group.
Still, their time is running perilously short. McConnell has said he wants to debate immigration on the floor for just this week. And the Senate often leaves for the weekend on Thursdays.
Ted Hesson contributed to this report.
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