Stuck At The Starting Line: Senate Can’t Agree On Where To Begin DACA Debate

LOUISVILLE, KY-FEBRUARY 12: U.S. Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), speaks at the University of Louisville's McConnell Center February 12, 2018 in Louisville, Kentucky. Schumer, who was introduced at the event by U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), was there as part of the Center's Distinguished Speaker Series. (Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
Bill Pugliano/Getty Images North America

As of late Tuesday afternoon, the Senate had yet to even begin a long-awaited debate on immigration. Hanging in the balance are the lives of 700,000 young DACA recipients who will soon lose their work permits and protection from deportation.

What lawmakers originally expected to be a robust, freewheeling, open debate on the half-dozen-plus competing proposals on the table is currently at a standstill, held up by partisan disagreements about which policy to vote on first.

Because the Senate needs to unanimously agree to skip over the 30 hours of debate time designated after Monday night’s opening vote, the two sides either need to reach an agreement, or run out the clock until around midnight. When Republicans attempted to call a vote Tuesday on an amendment to cut funding to sanctuary cities, Democrats objected.

“It does absolutely nothing to address DACA and absolutely nothing to address border security,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) vented to reporters. “We need to be focusing on making laws that deal with those two issues, not making a political point.”

Schumer called instead for kicking things off with votes on two competing comprehensive proposals, one based on President Trump’s list of demands that would drastically cut legal immigration, and one offered by Sens. Chris Coons (D-DE) and John McCain (R-AZ) that would offer a path to citizenship for DACA-eligible immigrants and study what border security buildup is needed in the future.

“I don’t think either of them will get large, bipartisan support, but it will give us an idea of the parameters,” he argued.

One of McConnell’s top aides, Don Stewart, pushed back, telling reporters that Democrats were holding up the process, and would be allowed votes on any bill of their choosing if they would only let Republicans begin debating the anti-sanctuary city amendment that has been filed.

“They’ve had all this time to prepare, and they still don’t know what the hell they want to do,” he said. “At some point they’ve got to come around, stop stalling, and start voting.

Amid this stalemate, a group of conservative Republicans are finalizing a bill based on President Trump’s immigration outline, which offers 1.8 million DACA-eligible immigrants a 10-to-12 year path to citizenship in exchange for tens of billions of dollars for border security, the elimination of the diversity visa lottery and the termination of several forms of family immigration sponsorship.

Members of the large bipartisan group of senators who have spent weeks holding closed-door negotiations are also scrambling to put together a compromise bill to introduce late Tuesday night or Wednesday morning.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), a member of that group, said Republicans will bear the responsibility if nothing can pass by the end of the week.

“They run this shop. They run the Senate. They run the House, and they run the White House. That’s pretty obvious to everyone. I remember a wise man once saying, ‘You break it, you own it.’ Well, this is the case.”

Republican leaders confirmed Tuesday morning that they want the entire immigration debate over and done with by Thursday, whether or not a solution is reached, as senators were scheduled to be on recess next week. Without even a beginning yet in sight, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle said they fear time is running out.

“I don’t think we should just do this between now and Thursday. I think we should stay on this topic until we get this job done,” Sen. Coons said. “If we can build bipartisanship in solving this, I think we then lay the groundwork for other bigger and important work going forward.”

Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) agreed, taking a critical view of the Senate’s usual Monday night to Thursday afternoon schedule.

“I’m used to working five days a week and on the weekends, and I think most Americans are too,” he said. This is a pretty important issue. I’ll stay through the weekend. Fine with me.”

Kennedy noted, however, that the tight timeline may be the push lawmakers need to come to an immigration agreement—something Congress has been unable to accomplish in years.

“We need everyone to stand up and be counted in front of god and country,” he said. “It’s time. Saddle up and ride.”

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