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 McConnellDems confront Kelly after he calls some immigrants 'lazy' McConnell: 'Whoever gets to 60 wins' on immigration Overnight Defense: Latest on spending fight - House passes stopgap with defense money while Senate nears two-year budget deal | Pentagon planning military parade for Trump | Afghan war will cost B in 2018 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 DurbinDems confront Kelly after he calls some immigrants 'lazy' McConnell: 'Whoever gets to 60 wins' on immigration Hoyer: DACA deal a long ways off 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 SchumerGOP lawmaker: Dems not standing for Trump is 'un-American' Trump called for unity — he didn’t even last a week Overnight Defense: GOP plays hardball by attaching defense funding to CR | US reportedly drawing down in Iraq | Russia, US meet arms treaty deadline | Why the military wants 6B from Congress 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 TrumpTillerson: Russia already looking to interfere in 2018 midterms Dems pick up deep-red legislative seat in Missouri Speier on Trump's desire for military parade: 'We have a Napoleon in the making' 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 PelosiGOP lawmaker: Dems not standing for Trump is 'un-American' Rep. Gutiérrez: 'Complete betrayal' if Pelosi backs budget caps deal without DACA Senate leaders say they're zeroing in on two-year budget deal MORE (D-Calif.) spent hours on the floor Wednesday, demanding Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanMcConnell: 'Whoever gets to 60 wins' on immigration Overnight Defense: Latest on spending fight - House passes stopgap with defense money while Senate nears two-year budget deal | Pentagon planning military parade for Trump | Afghan war will cost B in 2018 House passes stopgap spending measure with defense money 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 CollinsMcConnell: 'Whoever gets to 60 wins' on immigration GOP senators turning Trump immigration framework into legislation Longtime Clinton confidant blames Comey for 2016 loss 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 FlakeMcConnell: 'Whoever gets to 60 wins' on immigration Huckabee Sanders: Dems need to decide if they 'hate' Trump 'more than they love this country' Trump spokeswoman fires back at Flake: 'His numbers are in the tank' 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 SchumerGOP lawmaker: Dems not standing for Trump is 'un-American' Trump called for unity — he didn’t even last a week Overnight Defense: GOP plays hardball by attaching defense funding to CR | US reportedly drawing down in Iraq | Russia, US meet arms treaty deadline | Why the military wants 6B from Congress 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 GrahamMcConnell: 'Whoever gets to 60 wins' on immigration Overnight Tech: Uber exec says 'no justification' for covering up hack | Apple considers battery rebates | Regulators talk bitcoin | SpaceX launches world's most powerful rocket Overnight Cybersecurity: Tillerson proposes new cyber bureau at State | Senate bill would clarify cross-border data rules | Uber exec says 'no justification' for covering up breach 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.