When Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) committed on Monday to moving an immigration bill before Feb. 8, he didn’t give any incentives for the House of Representatives or the White House to follow suit on bipartisan legislation of their own.
“The reality is: you can’t—how do you get a commitment from the House?” explained Sen. Angus King (I-ME), who caucuses with Democrats. “I think they’re going to have to do what they’re going to do.”
That was the risk most Democrats were willing to take on Monday in order to get themselves out of a political quagmire of their own making when they forced a government shutdown three days ago. But no sooner did the government reopen than the fears many progressive advocates and lawmakers had about the McConnell deal begin to materialize.
Within a matter of minutes on Monday, conservative House Republicans were throwing cold water on whether a Senate commitment to holding an open-ended immigration reform process changes their calculus.
“You don’t reward bad behavior. This is really bad behavior, shutting down the government over policy. It was something they roundly and appropriately condemned us for in 2013,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) told The Daily Beast. “I don’t think [House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI)] should commit to a single thing. We didn’t shut down the government; they did. We’re not in the business of negotiating with terrorists, whether they’re political or otherwise.”
Republicans have, for months, argued that Congress shouldn’t be in a rush to codify the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program because it officially ends on March 5.
In exchange for voting to re-open the federal government, McConnell pledged to Democrats that the Senate would begin debate on legislation that would codify DACA if lawmakers can’t reach a bipartisan immigration deal before Feb. 8.
Democrats, argued that accepting McConnell’s proposal effectively forced action on the DACA matter, which, they stress, demands quick attention because recipients are already beginning to lose their protected status.
But the reality is that by folding on the shutdown fight, Democrats still don’t have the ironclad certainty they were seeking on DACA. Any immigration bill that passes the Senate with at least 60 votes is likely to face opposition from Republicans in the House, where conservative lawmakers have already coalesced around a plan that Democrats have dismissed as a non-starter.
In fact, conservatives argue they’ve already compromised enough by putting DACA on the table in the first place—signalling that they aren’t willing to simply accept what the Senate might send them, should it send them a bill at all.
“Republicans have moved so much on this. Two years ago, you couldn’t find Republicans that would say, yes, I’m okay with a legal status,” Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.) told The Daily Beast. “Now, not only are we talking about legal status, a lot of Republicans are even talking about—checking in every few years and maybe get in line for some citizenship. So at some point we’re expecting our Democrat counterparts that you’ve got to move our way some as well.”
Democrats are privately worried that a final vote on a DACA package—which will also include border security funding in order to win over Republicans—could come as conservatives are mired in primaries that would force them to the hard-right on immigration, prompting them to vote against any legislation that could be perceived as rubber-stamping “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants.
Still, some remain optimistic that enough political pressure will force the House to act. One top Senate Democratic aide told The Daily Beast that the lawmakers think the best path forward is to get President Donald Trump on board a bill by cordoning him off from some of his hardline advisers, such as White House policy chief Stephen Miller. At that point, the president would do the heavy lifting of moving it through the House.
“Let’s worry about the Senate first and make sure that, in the next 17 days, on this matter, that we do the work required to build a bipartisan coalition and a bill that not only gets but deserves 70 votes,” Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) told The Daily Beast in a brief interview. “That way, we’ve got a path forward. If we don’t get a strong bipartisan bill out of the Senate, then the House doesn’t matter. If we do, then I think that puts significant pressure on the House to step up and address this long overdue problem.”
The Democratic party’s strategy, lawmakers admit, remains a long shot. Though another Senate aide told The Daily Beast that the president was already reaching out to members on Monday—including some centrist Democrats—about forging a big-deal compromise, the White House has publicly drawn a harder line in the sand. On Monday, Raj Shah, the principal deputy press secretary, said on CNN that President Donald Trump could not sign the bill crafted in part by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Dick Durbin (D-IL) which supporters believe could get the necessary 60 votes in the Senate.
Before and during the government shutdown, Graham drew the ire of his fellow Republicans for going after White House staffers whom he believes are trying to upend a bipartisan compromise on DACA. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), an immigration hardliner who has allied himself with the president, implied that Graham was acting like a Democrat. Other conservatives have followed suit in disparaging the South Carolina senator.
“Lindsey Graham does not get to speak out on behalf of the country. That’s what’s wrong right now. That’s why we’re in a crisis,” Rep. Dave Brat (R-VA) told The Daily Beast. “Now you’ve got majorities of one—Lindsey Graham—saying, ‘I have a deal.’ No you don’t. You don’t represent my district and you don’t represent 450 other districts. You have a deal you would like.”
Monday’s deal, in short, left Democrats in a precarious position. They are now pinning their hopes on a piece of legislation co-authored by a Republican with poor standing in his own party, with the idea that a notoriously fickle president will come around to support it (or a variation of it) and that a Senate Republican leader who has broken a promise on immigration before will adhere to it now.
It’s one of the reasons why 16 Democrats held the line on Monday in voting against the measure.
“The lesson to me is that a promise here [in the Senate] is far less meaningful when there is no involvement by the House, not to mention the White House,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), one of those 16, told The Daily Beast in a brief interview. “So one of the reasons I voted against it was the lack of any involvement. And I have no confidence—zero—that Paul Ryan will bring a measure to the floor of the House. In fact, on the contrary, for all our talk here about bipartisanship and consensus, I am pessimistic, certainly far more so than my colleagues, about the House.”
—Additional reporting by Sam Stein