Republican leaders look for escape plan on immigration

Republican leaders in the House and Senate are boxed in on immigration and searching for a way out.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGOP moves to cut debate time for Trump nominees McConnell hits back at 'ridiculous' Chinaperson remark GOP senator: 'We were there' on immigration before talks got derailed MORE (R-Ky.) and Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerArizona GOP winner to join Freedom Caucus We need more congressional oversight on matters of war A warning to Ryan’s successor: The Speakership is no cakewalk MORE (R-Ohio) are struggling to find a way to fund the Department of Homeland Security while meeting conservative demands to unwind President Obama’s executive actions giving legal status to millions of immigrants who would otherwise face deportation.

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Congress is only scheduled to be in session for three weeks in February, giving lawmakers little time to craft a funding bill that would prevent an embarrassing shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on Feb. 28.

On Tuesday, the two began wiggling their way out of the tight spot:

• To please conservative critics, BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerArizona GOP winner to join Freedom Caucus We need more congressional oversight on matters of war A warning to Ryan’s successor: The Speakership is no cakewalk MORE announced at a morning GOP conference meeting that the House would sue the administration for giving de facto legal status to millions of illegal immigrants without congressional approval.

• A day after pulling a House border security bill drafted by Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) from a planned floor vote, GOP leaders said McCaul and Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob GoodlatteRobert (Bob) William GoodlatteHouse Judiciary delays markup of prison reform bill Overnight Health Care: New allegations against VA nominee | Dems worry House moving too fast on opioid bills | HHS chief back in DC | FDA reexamines safety of controversial Parkinson's drug Conservative justices signal willingness to uphold travel ban MORE (R-Va.) would work together to create a new, tougher border bill.

• McConnell announced at an afternoon press conference that the Senate will vote next week on a House-passed bill funding the DHS but reversing Obama’s executive actions.

• Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntSenators fume over fight to change rules for Trump's nominees GOP poised to advance rules change to speed up Trump nominees McCaskill outpaces GOP opponent by more than million MORE (Mo.), the vice chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, pledged at a press conference that Senate Republicans would do “everything we can to persuade at least half a dozen Democrats that they should join us,” adding, “you don’t know how these legislative battles go if you don’t have them, and we intend to have this one.”

McConnell and Boehner have a ways to go before they are in the clear, however.

And a familiar endgame — in which Boehner is forced to move legislation through the House with broad Democratic support — could be inevitable.

The House bill is destined for failure in the Senate, where GOP leaders lack the votes to overcome a Democratic filibuster.

Almost the entire Senate Democratic caucus signed a letter Tuesday stating, “the House bill cannot pass the Senate” and urging McConnell to move a clean bill.

 A lawsuit is likely to take years to wend its way through the courts, giving little satisfaction to conservative voters who want to see immediate action.

Conservatives have been divided over the McCaul bill, and it is unclear whether GOP leaders can make it more palatable by merging it with Goodlatte’s legislation, which deals with asylum claims and other issues related to enforcement.

McConnell on Tuesday declined to reveal whether he would allow Democrats to offer amendments to the House bill when it is considered in the Senate or how he would proceed if Democrats filibuster it.

Senate Majority Whip John CornynJohn CornynGOP moves to cut debate time for Trump nominees Republicans want Trump’s VA nominee to withdraw Senators to Trump: Let Mueller finish Russia probe MORE (R-Texas) said the House bill would come directly to the Senate floor but acknowledged leaders have yet to firm up a plan should it fail.

“I would say all options are on the table. There hasn’t been any decision made, so we’re considering that full range of options,” he said.

Some of the options were discussed at a Republican Steering Committee meeting last week.

The GOP could strip the House provision on Obama’s executive actions and instead add language strengthening border security or expanding H-1B visas for high-skilled workers.

One Senate GOP source said the upper chamber could add whichever version of the McCaul-Goodlatte border security and interior enforcement bill passes the House.

Allowing Obama’s executive actions to stand and adding components of immigration reform favored by Republicans might persuade a group of centrist Democrats to join with the majority of the Senate GOP conference to pass an alternative.

But it would likely face a party-line vote and a mass of conservative defections in the House.

And winning over Democratic senators would not be easy; Sen. Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerCan Mueller be more honest than his colleagues? Throwing some cold water on all of the Korean summit optimism House Republicans push Mulvaney, Trump to rescind Gateway funds MORE (N.Y.) and other members of the Senate Democratic leadership would fight efforts to pass piecemeal immigration reform on an appropriations bill.

Senate Republicans could try to sweeten the deal by adding other elements of immigration reform favored by Democrats to the Homeland Security funding bill.

That might build a bipartisan majority in both chambers but would likely prompt a harsh reaction from the GOP base.

Scott Wong and Cristina Marcos contributed.

This story was updated at 2:27 p.m. Thursday.