The Senate is inching closer to an immigration deal that enshrines legal protections for so-called DREAMers and allocates new funding for border security—but leaves out key initiatives sought by President Donald Trump and his allies on Capitol Hill.
In the aftermath of a bruising fight that left the government shut down for three days, Republican senators began to acknowledge this week that the best path forward before a key deadline is to make permanent the protections for undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally, and to fund enhanced security measures at the U.S.-Mexico border. Anything more comprehensive would face a perilous path forward, top lawmakers argued.
“Those are both 70-percent issues both in the country and in the Senate. Surely, the Senate can take two 70-percent issues and put them together into a workable bill,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO), a member of Senate Republican leadership, told The Daily Beast on Wednesday. “If you get beyond those two things, people have thought less about it in the country and it does make it harder.”
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), a top negotiator on the issue, told The Daily Beast that a “good way to proceed” would be to “have the smallest bill possible to achieve the results that you want.” That would include border-security measures in addition to preserving the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
That approach would leave out two of the White House’s four priorities: ending so-called chain migration and scrapping the visa lottery program. Chain migration allows lawful permanent U.S. residents to sponsor immigrants, while the visa lottery system prioritizes immigrants from countries from which immigration to the U.S. is low.
Sen. David Perdue (R-GA), a key ally of the president on immigration policy who has been pushing for both of those programs to end, predicted that a Senate bill that doesn’t address those two issues wouldn’t advance any further than the Senate—which would leave DACA unaddressed ahead of a critical March 5 deadline.
“The president said he’s not going to sign any bill that includes a DACA solution but doesn’t include border security including the wall, the end of chain migration, and ending the diversity lottery,” Perdue told The Daily Beast.
The White House on Wednesday reiterated those priorities, and press secretary Sarah Sanders announced that the administration will release a “legislative framework on Monday that represents a compromise that members of both parties can support.”
The White House’s push, along with Perdue and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), has been panned by senators from both parties as one that would effectively restrict legal immigration—something that remains a non-starter for Democrats and some Republicans, including Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ).
Moreover, House Republicans have already coalesced around a more conservative bill authored by Reps. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) and Michael McCaul (R-TX)—making it more difficult for House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) to take up a Senate-passed bill that is more centrist and viewed as an anathema among House Republicans.
“We oppose any process for a DACA solution that favors a backroom deal with Democrats over regular order in the House,” Rep. Mark Walker (R-NC), the chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee said in offering support for the Goodlatte-McCaul bill.
Some lawmakers are acknowledging the challenges while arguing that a DACA solution must close other loopholes, too, even if it verges on a more comprehensive, difficult-to-pass package. Making matters worse is the extreme tight deadlines.
“The problem is that in order to address DACA, you’ve got to address the impact on the parents and how you restrict the ability of a DACA recipient or a DACA child to simply step in and then sponsor their parent. In order to do that, you have to address some aspects of chain migration as well,” Sen. Mike Rounds (R-SD) told The Daily Beast. “We’re talking about making DACA work, so that becomes a component. Unfortunately, that’s one of the challenges we’ve got here.”
Graham, who is among a bipartisan group of senators spearheading the Senate’s efforts, said that over the next two weeks, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) and Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) will act as “clearinghouses” to spearhead vote-counting efforts for both sides in order to determine which bipartisan products can pass with the highest majority.
Most Senate Democrats voted against a stopgap spending measure on Friday in protest of what they viewed as an unclear path forward on DACA; but changed their minds Monday when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) offered them a commitment to advance DACA-related legislation by Feb. 8 if a bipartisan solution isn’t ironed out before that date.
The 16 Democratic senators who voted against Monday’s stopgap measure pointed to the 2013 comprehensive immigration overhaul debacle that saw no action on a Senate-passed bill. But other senators were more optimistic, arguing that this time is different because Congress is facing down a make-or-break deadline.
“Let me tell you why this movie is different: 80 percent of the people in the country are OK with DACA recipients having a pathway to citizenship. March 5, they lose their legal status. And the body as a whole looks like it’s the gang that can’t shoot straight,” Graham said.
Alexander, who is part of a bipartisan working group along with Graham, said a successful result would depend on Ryan and Trump following through on a Senate bill that gets a supermajority. Such legislation would likely have to be a slimmer product, Alexander acknowledged.
“I think our goal should be to get 70 votes in the Senate, and we’re more likely to get the president’s signature if we have that kind of broad support,” Alexander told The Daily Beast. “And the House is more likely to support it if the president supports it. So we’ll have to wait and see what gets 70 votes.”