McConnell Opens Immigration Debate Backing Trump's Framework

(Bloomberg) -- Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell threw his support behind immigration legislation that tracks President Donald Trump’s framework, making an opening bid in what is likely to be an extended debate with a proposal that’s already been rejected by Democrats.

McConnell endorsed a proposal chiefly sponsored by Republican Senators Charles Grassley of Iowa and John Cornyn of Texas that would provide a path to citizenship for about 1.8 million immigrants eligible for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which Trump is ending, and $25 billion for border security, including a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

It also would follow Trump’s plan to eliminate the ability of U.S. citizens to sponsor siblings, parents, and adult or married children for green cards, a provision that Democrats contend would drastically cut legal immigration and disrupt families.

“This legislation is a fair compromise that addresses the stated priorities of all sides,” McConnell said on the Senate floor Monday as he began what he promised would be an open debate on legislation to resolve one of the most contentious issues Congress will deal with this year. Late Monday, the Senate voted 97-1 to advance a measure that will be used as a vehicle for the immigration debate.

Election Issue

The outcome will have implications for November’s congressional elections in which all House seats and one-third of those in the Senate are on the ballot. Both parties have used the issue to motivate their voting bases. There are multiple proposals in the Senate and in the House, and it’s still unclear whether the two chambers can agree on a single piece of legislation that also would get Trump’s signature.

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York said reaching such a consensus “will be like threading a needle.”

He urged his colleagues to focus on a narrow bill that would give protections to the young immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, known as dreamers, and more border security. Trying to also restrict family sponsorships and eliminating the visa lottery system is likely to result in another stalemate, he said. “The only enemy here is overreach.”

The Senate’s staunchest immigration hard-liners, David Perdue of Georgia and Tom Cotton of Arkansas, have signed on to the legislation from Grassley and Cornyn, as have Senators Thom Tillis of North Carolina, James Lankford of Oklahoma and Joni Ernst of Iowa.

Stalemate

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.

The debate in the Senate was the price Schumer was able to extract for Democratic votes on a two-year budget deal that raised defense and domestic spending last week. In the House, though, conservatives aren’t giving any ground and would commit only to considering legislation that would meet Trump’s approval.

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 the Obama-era DACA 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 allow parents of the young immigrants to gain three-year work permits, but not citizenship.

Durbin told reporters on Monday he doesn’t think any Republican-led proposal can get enough Democratic support to prevail, including the Cornyn-Grassley proposal that McConnell endorsed, which he doesn’t think could get a single Democrat on board.

“I haven’t seen any Republican proposal that could gain 10 Democratic votes,” he said.

‘The Only Bill’

Republican backers of Trump’s plan told reporters it appears so far to be the only viable path to law because if it passes the Senate, it could have enough support to clear the House and win the president’s signature. They declined to say how much Senate support they have.

“This is the only bill that can become a law,” Cotton said. “We have a plan to pass a law. Others have a plan to pass a bill.”

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. Coons said Monday he’ll introduce that measure as an amendment during the debate, and he may add money for border security after being encouraged to do so by about a dozen senators.

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.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.