A small coalition of senators from both sides of the aisle attempting to hammer out an immigration deal in the next few weeks has ballooned into a working group of dozens, many of whom have little to no experience with immigration policy.
With the March 5 deadline for protecting DACA recipients from deportation looming, Senate staffers tell TPM the “unwieldy” group of nearly 40 is still talking “in broad strokes.” If they can’t put together a bill by Feb. 8—the deadline imposed as part of the deal to end the government shutdown—the proposal crafted by Sens. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), which has already been rejected by the White House, may be the “only game in town.”
As a weary-eyed Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) dashed through the basement of the Capitol Thursday afternoon, he told TPM he was well aware the clock is ticking for a resolution on DACA.
“We’ve got March 5 and February 8 breathing down on us,” he said.
Despite that tight timeline, Graham argued that the sprawling size of the working group was a benefit, not a liability.
“I’ve been doing this for 10 years with small groups and large groups,” he said. “The fact that more people are involved is good. The more people who want to see the Senate operate effectively, the better.”
Several other lawmakers involved in the talks also defended the high number of participants, saying such a showing was important for convincing the public and GOP leaders to take them seriously and not dismiss their work as a “fringe effort.”
But lawmakers who have long been involved with the issue, and immigrant rights’ advocates anxiously watching the negotiations’ process, aren’t so sure.
Asked if size of the bipartisan group is helpful to quickly reaching an agreement, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) laughed.
“Probably not,” he said. “In the end, it’s going to be a handful of senators—most likely Durbin, Schumer, McConnell and Cornyn—writing this bill. Having the input is important, but you’re not going to have 36 senators write the thing.”
Murphy added that he finds the lack of experience among several members of the group concerning. “My worry is that a lot of people writing this bill have never worked on immigration before,” he said.
The Republicans whose views are furthest to the right on immigration—such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who declared Thursday he would oppose anything with a path to citizenship for DACA recipients—have not been attending the bipartisan talks. Neither have the senators with the most progressive immigration stances, such as Kamala Harris (D-CA). But a handful of lawmakers with deeply conservative views, such at GOP Whip John Cornyn (R-TX), and longtime advocates for the DREAM Act like Durbin, have attempted to hash out their differences in the first few meetings.
“There’s a big range of views,” Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), who has been attending the talks, told TPM. “What we’re going to listen to a lot of different proposals and see what is possible.”
But with the deadline for bringing something to the Senate floor just a few short weeks away, the people with the most riding on the outcome are starting to sweat.
“I am enthused that many hands are in the kitchen helping to put together something, but I support a thinner approach that doesn’t include 40 people in a room,” Juan Escalante, a DACA recipient working with the advocacy group America’s Voice, told TPM. “How are we going to actually reach an agreement by February 8? By refocusing in a much narrower manner, looking into the main two points: the DREAM Act and a border security package. We have to make sure this doesn’t become a basket for the entire Republican immigration agenda, where they try to use the lives of 700,000 people to get what they couldn’t get in any other scenario.”
“If we don’t narrow this down,” Escalante warned, “we’re going to end up right where we started on March 5″—the day the Trump administration mandated that DACA protections expire.
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