When the Senate voted Monday night to open the floor up to consider proposals to protect 700,000 DACA recipients at risk of losing their legal protections, Democratic senators gushed that they were finally going to have the freewheeling debate they had long craved. Many on both sides assumed the contentious, complicated issue could drag out for weeks.
“I’ve been here seven years and never seen anything like it,” Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) marveled to TPM Monday night. “Who knows? Democracy may very well break out in here.”
That excitement quickly turned to frustration as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) confirmed Tuesday morning that he wants the entire debate — on the half-dozen-plus competing proposals put forward so far by lawmakers — to be over by the end of the week.
“Senators have had plenty of time to prepare. There’s no reason why we should not reach a bipartisan solution this week,” McConnell said. “I made a commitment to hold this debate and to hold it this week. I’ve lived up to my commitment. I hope everyone will cooperate so this opportunity does not go to waste.”
The Senate did not vote to open the debate until Monday evening, and held no floor debate after that. As of midday on Tuesday, debate on any of the bills in question had yet to begin in earnest, and no amendments had even been introduced. Because the Senate generally recesses by the close of business on Thursdays, they may have less than three full days to attempt to work out a path forward on an issue Congress has not been able to deal with in decades.
“Republican leadership shouldn’t try to short-circuit bipartisan discussions at this point,” a Democratic Senate aide told TPM. “Senators haven’t agreed to any time limit.”
But other members of the Senate’s Republican leadership confirmed the condensed timeline. GOP Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) said of his Democratic colleagues: “They better get it done quick because it’s this week or not at all.”
House Democrats, who have pinned their hopes on the Senate passing an immigration bill and ramping on pressure on their chamber, were furious.
“These Republicans say that they’re going to be fair and open and want to get a result, but only if you do it on their terms,” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) complained to reporters Tuesday. “That’s neither a fair nor full debate. This is a very, very difficult issue. This is an important piece of legislation for millions of Americans and millions want to see it passed. McConnell ought to provide an opportunity for that to happen and for the Senate to work its will.”
Hoyer added that Republicans blocked out multiple months of floor debate last year for repealing Obamacare and cutting corporate taxes, compared to just a handful of days for immigration.
After March 5, unless Congress can pass a bill or a federal court intervenes, more than 1,000 DACA recipients per day will begin to lose their work permits and be at risk of deportation.
“Time is not on our side,” Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) told reporters Monday afternoon, emphasizing that the fate of Dreamers is now in the hands of McConnell, who will control what proposals receive a vote this week and whether debate will be cut off if the Senate cannot reach a resolution.
“I told Mitch McConnell, looking him in the eye, ‘I trust you. I think you made it clear that you’re going to be fair on the floor. And I’ve defended you to some Democrats who are skeptical,'” Durbin said.
With so many competing immigration proposals — and many of them still being drafted— lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say they’re increasingly worried that all Congress will be able to agree on is a short-term punt that protects Dreamers for just one year, leaving them and their families in limbo.
“I don’t want to entertain that possibility because I know politicians and how they act,” Durbin said. “If there is an escape hatch anywhere, they will find it. I don’t want an escape hatch. I want us to do our job.”