Senate headed for freewheeling debate on immigration bill
© Greg Nash

The Senate will be starting from scratch next week when it begins debating immigration legislation on the floor, a key choice that could impact the outcome.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellCongress had a good couple of weeks — now let's keep it going McCarthy: 'The Mueller investigation has got to stop' McConnell: Mueller 'ought to wrap it up' MORE (R-Ky.) said Wednesday he will use a nonimmigration bill as the starting point for floor debate, a decision in line with a weeks-long promise that the process will be “fair." 

“[It] will be a process that is fair to all sides. The bill I move to, which will not have underlying immigration text, will have an amendment process that will ensure a level playing field at the outset,” he said.

Before Wednesday, the GOP leader had been tight-lipped about his plans. He’s expected to formally tee up the debate on immigration after the chamber passes a deal to fund the government, increase the budget caps and raise the debt ceiling. 

The decision has both procedural and political implications, as senators will be able to offer their own competing immigration proposals. In McConnell’s own words, “whoever gets to 60 wins.”

McConnell said both sides would be able to offer “alternate proposals for consideration and for votes."

"While I obviously cannot guarantee any outcome, let alone supermajority support, I can ensure the process is fair to all sides, and that is what I intend to do," he said.

But using a House-passed bill also helps bypass a procedural hang up known as a “blue slip,” which requires that any new revenue or spending — for instance, on border security — starts in the lower chamber.

The legislative ping-pong will be a break from the normally tightly scripted Senate floor. Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinHugh Hewitt to Trump: 'It is 100 percent wrong to separate border-crossing families' Opioid treatment plans must include a trauma-informed approach Overnight Health Care — Sponsored by PCMA — Dems want answers on DOJ ObamaCare decision MORE (D-Ill.) said it could be the first time much of the chamber sees an open debate.

“For many senators it’s an introduction to Senate 101, how this place used to work,” said Durbin, who has been heavily involved in the immigration negotiations.

McConnell hasn’t offered any specifics on how long the debate will last or how many amendments both sides will be able to get a vote on. 

Leaving the Capitol Tuesday evening, he said debate would last “until we get through it.”

A spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerTrump knocks Schumer, touts North Korea summit in early morning tweet Overnight Health Care — Sponsored by PCMA — Dems want answers on DOJ ObamaCare decision The Hill's 12:30 Report — Trump, Kim make history with summit MORE (D-N.Y.), asked if they had a deal on the number of immigration amendments, said McConnell outlined the agreement on the floor.

The White House, as well as some GOP senators, had lobbied for President TrumpDonald John TrumpEx-ethics chief calls on Trump to end 'monstrous' migrant policies Laura Bush blasts Trump migrant policy as 'cruel' and 'immoral' US denies report of coalition airstrike on Syria MORE’s proposal to be the basis of the Senate’s debate. Marc Short, the White House director of legislative affairs, told reporters earlier this week that, “I think we’d advocate our framework to be the base bill.”

That proposal would have offered a path to citizenship to roughly 1.8 million immigrants in exchange for tens of billions in border security and cuts to legal immigration. 

But it was widely panned by Democrats, as well as some Republicans, who believed cuts to legal immigration should be dealt with as part of the larger “phase two” immigration battle.

A group of GOP senators are drafting Trump’s framework into legislative text and are expected to offer it as an amendment during the Senate’s immigration debate.

Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), one of Trump’s most vocal Senate supporters, noted McConnell’s decision was in line with his public rhetoric but senators would face a choice on the floor next week.

“Well, that’s sort of what he promised people, is an open process. So there will be a lot of choices,” he said. 

He added that immigration is a “complex” issue but he continues to believe a deal can be reached. 

“Democrats [and] Republicans are working it hard right now to see if we can find a common ground. I think there’s enough common ground to get a deal done here,” he said.

The immigration debate comes as lawmakers in multiple groups have, so far, failed to work out an agreement that would win 60 votes in the Senate, much less the more conservative House or the White House.

House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiDonald Trump is delivering on his promises and voters are noticing Trump rips Democrats for allowing MS-13 'animals' into country The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE (D-Calif.) spent hours on the floor Wednesday, demanding Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanWhite House faces growing outcry over migrant family policies John Legend slams Paul Ryan for Father's Day tweet, demands end to family separation Trump faces Father’s Day pleas to end separations of migrant families MORE (R-Wis.) take up an immigration bill regardless of whether or not Trump supports it.

One group doing much of the negotiation — which consists of Durbin, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Reps. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the second highest-ranking members of both parties in the two chambers — have failed to reach a broad agreement favored by the White House.

A group of centrists, led by GOP Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsDHS secretary defends Trump administration's migrant policies White House faces growing outcry over migrant family policies GOP senators push for clarification on migrant family separations MORE (R-Maine), are also continuing to negotiate as they try to reach consensus among themselves.

“My hope is that our Common Sense Coalition could come up with a proposal to put forth for our colleagues’ consideration. The issues are very difficult. ... But we do seem to be making progress,” Collins told reporters after the group’s latest meeting.

Collins added that using a House bill as a base would let senators “truly have a level playing field.”

Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeDHS secretary defends Trump administration's migrant policies White House faces growing outcry over migrant family policies GOP senators push for clarification on migrant family separations MORE (R-Ariz.), who is a part of Collins’s group, said he is also working on proposals to offer, but declined to discuss the details.

“Some we’re working on with others. Some [are a] fallback,” he said.

McConnell’s decision could help assuage concerns from the Senate’s progressive wing, which had voiced skepticism last month that McConnell would stick to his promise. As part of reopening the government, McConnell said he would move to an immigration debate assuming the government remained open after Feb. 8.

But activists lambasted Schumer on Wednesday for agreeing to a budget-caps deal without a deal on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which allows immigrants brought into the country illegally as children to work and go to school.

“As a vibrant resistance to Trump’s unpopular white supremacist vision grows in cities across the country, Chuck SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerTrump knocks Schumer, touts North Korea summit in early morning tweet Overnight Health Care — Sponsored by PCMA — Dems want answers on DOJ ObamaCare decision The Hill's 12:30 Report — Trump, Kim make history with summit MORE has failed to be the strategist we need to win,” said Greisa Martinez Rosas, the advocacy director for United We Dream.

Durbin, carrying around a copy of McConnell’s statement, predicted that cuts to family-based immigration visas and the president’s larger immigration framework would not be able to get 60 votes.

He also said Democrats have been discussing what proposals they will offer as amendments, and suggested his measure with GOP Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGOP senator: Family separation policy 'inconsistent' with American values Trump’s trusted diplomat faces daunting task with North Korea Trump’s danger on North Korea? Raised expectations MORE (R-S.C.) could get 60 votes.

“I don’t know at this moment, but I will tell you that the Graham-Durbin bill had six supporters on the Republican side. And I think that number could grow, but I’m not assuming a thing. We have to work for the additional five,” he said, asked what he thought would be able to pass the Senate.

But Trump shot down that proposal during a heated White House meeting where he reportedly referred to several developing nations as “shithole countries." He also rejected a scaled-back bill from Sens. Christopher Coons (D-Del.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) because it didn't include funding for a border wall.

Asked Wednesday if the White House could support a “two pillar” bill, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders stressed that they wanted a broader agreement on DACA, border security, changes to family-based immigration and nixing the diversity visa lottery. 

“We've laid out the four pillars that we want to see in immigration legislation,” she said.