Democrats Lose Immigration Clout But May Gain an Election Issue
(Bloomberg) -- Congressional Democrats who provided needed votes to reopen the government after Friday’s brief shutdown now head into a fight over the intractable issue of immigration with their clout to help young undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers clipped significantly.
Republicans successfully separated debate over a must-pass budget deal, which funded government operations and raised budget caps, from a quest by Democrats to shield from deportation for as many as 1.8 million Dreamers.
In the Senate, Democratic leader Chuck Schumer was able to set a price for that concession. The chamber opens an immigration debate on Monday that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell promised would start with a blank slate; he also cautioned that no one can guess whether the senators will be able to produce something President Donald Trump would sign.
"I do think that we can get something done this week," Arizona Republican Senator Jeff Flake said on NBC’s "Meet the Press" Sunday. "We’re going to have something in the Senate that we haven’t had in a while. It’s a real debate on an issue where we really don’t know what the outcome is going to be."
The path ahead is even less certain in the House, where conservatives aren’t giving any ground. Speaker Paul Ryan would commit only to considering legislation that would meet Trump’s approval.
“What’s being proposed in the Senate is not going to be acceptable to conservatives in the House, guaranteed,” Republican Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, a member of the House Freedom Caucus, said on the “Fox News Sunday” program.
Although they lost leverage to force action, a dragged out, inconclusive debate may hand Democrats an election issue that would energize their base as they seek to retake control of the House in the November elections. There are more than a dozen Republican representatives facing re-election in districts with heavy concentrations of Latino voters in California, Arizona, Florida, Texas and Colorado.
It’ll be a tough slog for either party to come up with legislation, said Ben Wikler, Washington director for the advocacy group MoveOn.org, which is pressuring Democrats to hold firm on immigration. It’ll be especially hard for Democrats who can no longer use the threat of a shutdown in a spending fight try to force Republicans’ hand.
“Decoupling the budget caps and Dreamer fight is equivalent to throwing out a lever and trying to use your shoulder to move a boulder instead,” Wikler said.
Lawmakers in both parties seeking some accord on immigration say they don’t want to see a repeat of what happened in 2013. Then, the Senate overwhelmingly passed a comprehensive measure offering 11 million undocumented immigrants a pathway to legal status paired with a $46 billion border security plan. The House never took it up.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi last week held the floor for an unprecedented eight hours in a call for action to help the young immigrants. She urged Ryan to commit to an immigration floor debate that lets the chamber consider a series of proposals, with the one garnering the most votes prevailing.
The administration in January proposed giving the 1.8 million Dreamers a path to citizenship in exchange for drastically reducing family-based migration, a $25 billion trust fund for a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico, stepped-up security at ports of entry, and stricter internal enforcement.
Late Sunday, conservative GOP senators including No. 2 Leader John Cornyn of Texas and Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa said they will propose Trump’s plan to the Senate this week.
Representative Mark Meadows, a North Carolina Republican who is chairman of the conservative Freedom Caucus, said Sunday that his group would spend the coming weeks pushing Ryan to corral support for a more hard-line bill by GOP Representatives Bob Goodlatte of Virginia and Raul Labrador of Idaho.
The bill, he said on the CBS program “Face the Nation,” includes Trump’s “four pillars” for an immigration deal, while putting “an emphasis on border security and not creating a special pathway to citizenship.”
Meadows rejected the idea of waiting for the Senate, where procedural rules give Democrats more leverage to shape the outcome.
“If we’re going to wait for the Senate, why don’t we all go home take naps?” he said. “I didn’t sign up for that, and most people that elected me didn’t want me to sign up for that.”
Trump’s shifting positions and negotiating tactics, meanwhile, have left many lawmakers unsure what he’ll accept. At times he’s expressed a compassionate approach to the issue of immigration, particularly the young undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. But in his January State of the Union address, he enraged immigration activists by closely linking immigrants -- both legal and undocumented arrivals -- with crime and terrorism. In doing so, he returned to one of his 2016 campaign themes.
The president has already rejected a proposal from Senators Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, and Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican. Their plan would provide a pathway to citizenship for the beneficiaries of Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, authorize $2.7 billion for border security, and reallocate visas in a diversified visa lottery. It would also include restrictions on family-based immigration for the Dreamers and allows parents of the young immigrants to gain three-year work permits, but not citizenship.
Trump also has shot down another bipartisan Senate proposal, from Republican John McCain and Democrat Chris Coons, that offers a path to permanent status for the Dreamers and requires the Secretary of Homeland Security to implement a plan to secure the border by Jan. 20, 2021.
Backers of both those measures say they could be offered on the Senate floor, likely with some modifications. Another bipartisan group of senators, led by Republican Susan Collins of Maine and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, has yet to reach agreement on a proposal. Collins said late last week that their talks will continue even after the Senate debate begins.
The Senate’s staunchest immigration hard-liners, David Perdue of Georgia and Tom Cotton of Arkansas, are discussing whether to offer their plan to cut legal immigration in half over a decade and move the U.S. to a merit-based immigration system. That legislation, however, has only one other Republican lawmaker as a co-sponsor -- Roger Wicker of Mississippi. Perdue said last week they’re also considering offering alternative proposals.
Schumer has plenty to gain in November’s elections if lawmakers can agree on a plan that combines help for the Dreamers with other provisions backed by Republicans. Ten Senate Democrats on the ballot this fall in states Trump won -- including Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Donnelly of Indiana -- are under more voter pressure to fund border security than they are to help undocumented immigrants.
For House Democrats, Pelosi’s focus is aggressively on DACA.
“We have no right to talk about Dreamers and to tell their stories and take pride in their actions unless we are willing to take action to support them,” Pelosi said during her marathon speech on the House floor. “And we have that opportunity to, by asking the speaker of the House to give us a vote. What are you afraid of?”
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.