Senate Embarks On Immigration Debate With No Solution In Sight

on February 7, 2018 in Washington, DC.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images North America

Every Senator save Ted Cruz (R-TX) voted Monday night to begin debate on the fate of 700,000 young immigrants soon-to-be stripped of their legal protections by the Trump administration, but what Congress will be able to pass, if anything, remains a mystery.

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.

“People’s lives are hanging in the balance, and I’m not being dramatic,” a somber Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) told reporters. “Whether they can stay in school, whether they can keep their jobs, whether they’ll be separated from their families—these are as gut-wrenching as decisions in life as anyone might face, and I just don’t know if we’ll have 60 votes.”

The Senate’s Monday night vote was on an unrelated shell bill, and over the next couple weeks, Republicans and Democrats will put forward various immigration proposals as amendments, struggling behind the scenes to whip up 60 votes for any one plan. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) promised Democrats a debate on DACA in return for ending their standoff over funding the federal government last month.

Durbin told reporters Monday that he expects the debate to start at the parties’ more radical extremes and slowly move toward the center.

“My Republican colleagues can vote on things that may be more restrictive and conservative, and if they don’t pass, consider more moderate approaches,” he explained. “We may start with things that are more expansive and not be able to pass those, then we’ll all move towards the center, a middle approach.”

Among the bills likely to be the table is a plan introduced Monday by Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Tom Cotton (R-AR) and other hardline conservative lawmakers that mirrors President Trump’s controversial immigration framework—terminating the diversity visa lottery and severely restricting family-based immigration. Unveiling the bill Monday night, Cotton told reporters Democrats could either accept their bill or watch DACA expire.

“The President’s framework is not an opening bid in negotiation. It is a best and final offer,” he said. “Ultimately, when the senators in both parties have a choice between the President’s proposal or nothing at all, I think the President’s proposal will succeed.”

Cotton’s ultimatum alluded to President Trump’s recent declaration that he would veto any bill that doesn’t match his list of immigration demands.

Also in the mix is a yet-to-be unveiled bill from Sen. Jeff Flake (R-FL), who told reporters Monday night that he was working on writing a bill that addresses all four “pillars” of President Trump’s immigration demands but, unlike the Cotton-Grassley-Trump model, does not slash legal immigration.

Party leaders may also allow votes on bipartisan proposals by Durbin and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and by Sens. Chris Coons (D-DE) and John McCain (R-AZ), though exactly which amendments will be allowed a floor debate and in what order is yet to be determined.

Even if the Senate manages to pass something over the next couple weeks, Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) has said he refuses to take up any bill that lacks support from both a majority of House Republicans and President Trump. But several senators told TPM they remained optimistic and excited for a freewheeling open debate on a major issue, something many of them said they have never once experienced in their time in office.

“I’ve been here seven years and never seen anything like it,” a smiling Coons told TPM. “Who knows? Democracy may very well break out in here.”

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