Thousands of protesters parade through downtown San Francisco for immigration rights. (Photographer: Kimberly White/Bloomberg News)

Senate Rejection May Mark End of Chances for Immigration Deal

(Bloomberg) -- Chances for a broad immigration deal emerging from Congress this year are all but dead after the Senate within a span of a few hours on Thursday rejected both a White House-backed proposal and a bipartisan compromise to address the fate of 1.8 million young immigrants.

The stalled debate left lawmakers in both parties looking for a way out and the immigrants known as dreamers still facing a deportation threat unless a court intervenes. President Donald Trump showed no sign he would bend on his demands for cuts to legal immigration as his administration made all-out effort to kill the compromise worked out by a group of Republican and Democratic senators. 

“The issues aren’t going to go away,” said Senator Mike Rounds of South Dakota, a Republican co-sponsor of the compromise measure. “We’ve still got DACA kids who are going to have to be addressed. We’ve still got a border security system that the president says is a priority.”

With lawmakers anticipating the November elections, when all of the House and one-third of the Senate will be on the ballot, battle lines are likely to harden. 

The issue is one that members of both parties can use to motivate their core bases of support. For many conservative Republicans that means taking a hard line on border security and against granting legal status to anyone in the country illegally. For most Democrats, the issue will be erasing the threat of deportation for immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children and letting American citizens bring their parents and siblings from abroad.

‘Deeply Concerned’

“People ought to be deeply, deeply concerned,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat who isn’t up for re-election this year. “What I’ve seen happen to families is just heartbreaking and inhumane.”

Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas, who voted against the bipartisan proposal, suggested there may be an attempt to provide a temporary reprieve against deportation for the young immigrants, along with more money for border security, by attaching it to broad spending legislation that must be passed by March 23. But that would again entangle that intractable issue with funding for the government, which has led to brinkmanship and a brief shutdown earlier this year.

That option “is not great but that’s kind of where we are,” Cornyn said.

Playing Hardball

There was no indication that Trump, whose decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program on March 5 is being held up by a court case, would support such a temporary measure.

The Trump administration is trying to strengthen its hand by pressing an unusual fast-track appeal, asking the Supreme Court to intervene and rule that the president can end the DACA program.

The nine justices were scheduled to consider the administration’s bid for review at their private conference Friday. The court would have to act quickly to hear the appeal during the nine-month term that ends in June, but the justices made no mention of the DACA case on a list of orders released Friday afternoon.

The administration demonstrated it was willing to play hardball to get the terms wanted by a president who was elected on a promise to crack down on immigration, both illegal and legal.

When a bipartisan compromise emerged that didn’t include all of Trump’s requirements, the administration moved to kill it in the hours leading up to the vote. The White House issued a veto threat, the Homeland Security Department released a blistering statement that called it a “mass amnesty bill,” and a White House official used the cloak of anonymity in a briefing to attack one of lead Republican negotiators, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, as an obstacle to getting anything done.

The bipartisan plan, which would have provided $25 billion for border security and a path to citizenship for the young immigrants, got 54 votes, short of the 60 needed to advance. Another measure that reflected Trump’s “four pillars” of an immigration deal lost by an even wider margin, 39-60.

Two other, more limited, measures also were rejected.

The White House stayed on the offensive in the aftermath of the votes. In a statement, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders blamed Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Democrats “held hostage by the radical left in their party, which opposes any immigration control at all.’’

Holding Firm

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell held out hope that Thursday’s votes won’t be the end of attempts to resolve the immigration puzzle. But he stood by the president’s demand that any DACA solution be tied to eliminating the ability of Americans to sponsor siblings, parents and adult children for green cards.

"If a solution is developed in the future that can pass both the House and the Senate and be signed into law by the president, it should be considered," he said. "But for that to happen, Democrats will need to take a second look at these core elements of necessary reform."

Rounds insisted that there was still a chance for something broader once everyone “cools off.”

Even if the Senate revisits the issue and passes a DACA bill, the prospects remain murky in the House, where the Republican majority is more conservative on immigration and many members have been hard-pressed to back any legal status for undocumented immigrants.

GOP-Only Bill

House Republican leaders were trying to gauge member support for a GOP-only bill that some conservatives were pushing. The proposal, sponsored by Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, checks off Trump’s four pillars.

That bill is short of the 218 votes it would need to pass if all members were present and voting, but some changes are in the works that could win more support, according to two GOP aides familiar with the vote count. The House had been waiting for the Senate to act first on immigration.

House Speaker Paul Ryan has said he wants the issue resolved but hasn’t committed to any course of action. House members finished the last votes of the week shortly after noon on Thursday, and they won’t be back in Washington until Feb. 26. The Senate also is off next week.

Asked about the next steps in the Senate, Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton, who voted for the Trump-backed measure, said, “We’ll go on to banking reform and confirming judges.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.