Senate Struggling to Find Votes for an Immigration Compromise
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S. (Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Senate Struggling to Find Votes for an Immigration Compromise

(Bloomberg) -- Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he wants to wrap up immigration legislation this week even as senators working on bipartisan compromises say none of the proposals offered so far has enough votes to pass.

“I don’t know that any of the current bills can get to 60,” the number of votes needed to advance a bill in the Senate, said Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut.

He said Democrats don’t want to support the cuts to legal immigration that President Donald Trump is demanding in exchange for protecting young undocumented immigrants from deportation. And given that the White House and its Republican allies aren’t ceding limiting family-based immigration to spouses and minor children, it’s far from clear what, if anything, can pass.

“I don’t know,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said when asked what can pass the chamber. “That’s the $64,000 question.”

Senators are trying to open a free-form debate that will allow votes on multiple proposals from lawmakers in each party, an almost old-fashioned approach in an increasingly partisan chamber. McConnell last year relied on Republican-only support to pass a major tax overhaul, unsuccessfully try to repeal Obamacare, and change filibuster rules to confirm Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch.

All sides say they want protection from deportation for so-called dreamers -- undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children -- but so far they can’t agree on how to do it. Trump is ending the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. He insists that any legislation to replace it must be combined with a U.S.-Mexico border wall, an end to a diversity visa lottery and restricting family-based immigration to spouses and minor children.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce said in a statement Tuesday that it backs permanent protection for dreamers but it "strongly opposes any reduction in legal immigration," which it said would harm economic growth and encourage more illegal immigration.

Skirmish Over Debate

McConnell of Kentucky and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York skirmished Tuesday afternoon over how to start the debate.

"I’m ready to get started," McConnell said. But Schumer objected to the majority leader’s plan to offer as his first proposal an amendment on sanctuary cities, unrelated to the issue of young immigrants.

Instead, Schumer wanted to debate and vote on Trump’s proposal along with a narrower Democratic plan to aid the immigrants and boost border security.

“That will tell us sort of the balance," Schumer said. "I don’t think either will get wide bipartisan support” but votes on both proposals would give the “parameters” of debate and then negotiations can continue, he said.

Senators agreed to vote Wednesday morning on taking up the bill, but they haven’t agreed which amendments to consider first.

In the House, GOP Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin has said little about what he’ll do, except that he only will advance an immigration proposal that Trump will sign.

November Elections

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.

Bipartisan groups of lawmakers are discussing a variety of approaches to boosting border security, limiting the relatives immigrants can bring to the U.S., and revising or ending a visa lottery that’s intended to promote diversity.

A group of more than 20 Republicans and Democrats led by GOP Senator Susan Collins of Maine and Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia has hit snags on issues including legal immigrants’ ability to sponsor relatives outside their immediate family, according to Senator Heidi Heitkamp, a North Dakota Democrat.

“I can tell you that family unification is a tough issue to resolve,” Heitkamp said.

Another member of the group, Florida Democrat Bill Nelson, said they may offer a “simple amendment” that would shield the dreamers, protect their parents, and provide about $25 billion for the border security Trump wants. Such a plan might get 60 votes, he said.

Grassley-Cornyn Bill

The measure backed by McConnell is sponsored by Republican Senators Chuck Grassley of Iowa and John Cornyn of Texas and mirrors Trump’s proposal. It would provide a path to citizenship for about 1.8 million young immigrants, $25 billion for border security including a wall, and end immigrants’ ability to sponsor siblings, parents, and adult children for permanent residency.

The Senate’s staunchest immigration hard-liners, David Perdue of Georgia and Tom Cotton of Arkansas, support the Grassley-Cornyn bill. Democrats say it’s unlikely to attract votes in their party, but GOP supporters say it may be the only plan Trump would sign.

Trump has shot down a bipartisan Senate proposal from Republican John McCain of Arizona and Democrat Chris Coons of Delaware that would offer a path to permanent status for the dreamers and require a border security plan by January 2021. Coons said Monday he may add border security funds to help build support.

The president also said he won’t sign a similar proposal by Senators Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, and Graham that also would reallocate the diversity visas and allow dreamers’ parents to gain three-year work permits, but not citizenship.

Graham said he favors the family-based immigration cuts Trump has proposed, but warned that it’s not politically feasible within the context of legalizing dreamers. "You’re not going to get that for the DACA population," he said.

Durbin said Monday he also may offer the Dream Act, which simply focuses on the young so-called dreamer immigrants and would provide them a path to citizenship if they meet certain requirements.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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