The Senate’s main players on immigration legislation

The fate of Senate immigration reform legislation rests in the hands of a few key senators on both sides of the aisle.

The stakes are enormously high, as hundreds of thousands of immigrants who entered the country illegally as children face deportation if Congress fails to act by March 5, a deadline set by President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump says he doesn't want to use 'adversary' to describe Russia Comey urges Americans to vote for Democrats in midterms Roby wins Alabama GOP runoff, overcoming blowback from Trump criticism MORE.

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Proponents for giving these immigrants legal status or even a path to citizenship hope to pass a bill out of the Senate with enough political momentum to win Trump’s support and then create pressure to schedule a vote on the House floor.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOvernight Defense: Trump tries to quell Russia furor | GOP looks to reassure NATO | Mattis open to meeting Russian counterpart Senate weighs new Russia response amid Trump backlash House passes bipartisan bill to boost business investment MORE (R-Ky.) has promised “a level playing field” for the Senate debate and “an amendment process that is fair to all sides,” but the outcome is far from certain.  

These lawmakers will decide what legislation — if any — attracts the 60 votes necessary.


Sen. John CornynJohn CornynSenate weighs new Russia response amid Trump backlash McConnell: Russians are not our friends Russians' indictment casts shadow ahead of Trump-Putin summit MORE (R-Texas)

Cornyn, the Senate Republican whip, is perhaps the most important player in the debate.

This will be the fourth time he plays a high-profile role in a major Senate immigration debate. 

He was at the center of action in 2006 and 2013, when the Senate passed comprehensive immigration reform bills that failed to get anywhere with the House. He was also a pivotal player in 2007 when a broad bipartisan plan collapsed under its own weight in the Senate.

Cornyn is the point person for the GOP leadership and has McConnell’s trust.

He will serve as a “clearing house” for various proposals, screening out ideas that can’t pass muster with Trump or the GOP-controlled House.

He has a solid grasp of policy and its practical implications as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee Border Security and Immigration Subcommittee and the senior senator of a border state with a large immigrant population.


Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinSenate Dems press for info on any deals from Trump-Putin meeting Too many Americans go to prison but Congress can fix this problem This week: GOP mulls vote on ‘abolish ICE’ legislation MORE (D-Ill.)

Durbin will serve as the clearing house for proposals on the Democratic side.

He is the senior Democrat on the border security and immigration subcommittee and played a central role in negotiating the comprehensive immigration reform bill that passed the Senate in 2013. Durbin introduced the first Dream Act, which gave young immigrants permanent resident status if they met certain requirements, in 2001.

Durbin, the minority whip, has regularly highlighted the life stories of young people who came to the country illegally as children and have excelled academically and professionally, earning the trust of colleagues, as well as those facing deportation.

Durbin says he wants any immigration deal to grant “Dreamers” a path to citizenship, something that Trump and most Republicans say needs to be balanced with immigration reforms, such as limiting green cards to the nuclear family members of citizens and eliminating the diversity visa lottery program.

Durbin will help decide which of the proposed GOP reforms are acceptable concessions in return for protecting Dreamers.


Sen. Tom CottonThomas (Tom) Bryant CottonBipartisan group introduces retirement savings legislation in Senate Overnight Defense: Fallout from tense NATO summit | Senators push to block ZTE deal in defense bill | Blackwater founder makes new pitch for mercenaries to run Afghan war Hillicon Valley: DOJ appeals AT&T-Time Warner ruling | FBI agent testifies in heated hearing | Uproar after FCC changes rules on consumer complaints | Broadcom makes bid for another US company | Facebook under fire over conspiracy sites MORE (R-Ark.)

Cotton is the voice of conservatives who want to bolster the enforcement of immigration law — which critics on the right say has become overly lax — and decrease legal immigration quotas.

Cotton wants to establish a skills-based point system similar to what is used in Canada to replace the current employment visa system. He also wants to give the spouses and minor children of citizens and legal permanent residents preference for green cards and eliminate the diversity visa lottery program — two key points in Trump’s four-point immigration plan.

Senate Democratic Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerThis week: GOP mulls vote on ‘abolish ICE’ legislation Red-state Dem tells Schumer to 'kiss my you know what' on Supreme Court vote Dem infighting erupts over Supreme Court pick MORE (N.Y.) has told his Democratic colleagues that he thinks Trump wants to cut a deal on immigration but worries that the president might shrink in the face of opposition from the GOP’s conservative base.

In this debate, Cotton represents that base.


Sens. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeKelly lobbied Republicans to rebuke Trump after Putin press conference: report Senate weighs new Russia response amid Trump backlash Flake to Trump: 'Fake news' didn't side with Putin, you did MORE (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamKelly lobbied Republicans to rebuke Trump after Putin press conference: report Senate weighs new Russia response amid Trump backlash Trump stuns the world at Putin summit MORE (R-S.C.)

Flake and Graham are two veterans of the Gang of Eight that authored the last comprehensive immigration reform bill to pass the Senate in 2013.

They are members of the Judiciary Committee and solidly in favor of giving legal status, preferably a path to citizenship, to Dreamers.

Flake has argued to McConnell in meetings that if the Senate passes legislation, Trump can be persuaded to support it. If the Senate leads, Flake claims, the White House will follow.

McConnell, however, has been leery of getting out ahead of the president, worried that members of his conference could wind up voting for controversial legislation that gets slapped down by Trump and then becomes a political liability in future GOP primaries.

Flake and Graham supported a bipartisan framework that created a path to citizenship for people who qualified for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that Trump rescinded in September and allocated $2.7 billion for border security.

They are expected to vote with most Democrats on a proposal to protect Dreamers.


Sens. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisSenate adds members to pro-NATO group GOP lambasts Trump over performance in Helsinki On paper, Wilkie is the perfect candidate for VA secretary, but his qualifications go further MORE (R-N.C.), James LankfordJames Paul LankfordHillicon Valley: Trump tries to quell Russia furor | Sparks fly at hearing on social media | First House Republican backs net neutrality bill | Meet the DNC's cyber guru | Sinclair defiant after merger setback Koch group pushes DACA fix on Capitol Hill Juan Williams: Putin wins as GOP spins MORE (R-Okla.) and David Perdue (R-Ga.)

This trio represents the mainstream Senate Republican sentiment on immigration reform.

Together with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleySenate GOP poised to break record on Trump's court picks This week: GOP mulls vote on ‘abolish ICE’ legislation Kavanaugh paper chase heats up MORE (R-Iowa), they have co-sponsored the Secure and Succeed Act of 2018, which puts in legislative text Trump’s four-point immigration reform proposal.

They favor a 12-year path to citizenship for immigrants who meet the requirements of DACA.

They want $25 billion to secure the U.S.-Mexico border and increased authority for border enforcement agents, such as the ability to retain custody of illegal border crossers instead of releasing them on their own recognizance.

So far, Tillis, Lankford and Perdue have steadfastly insisted that granting Dreamers a path to citizenship must be matched with ending the immigration preference given to non-nuclear family members of citizens and permanent legal residents.

They have stayed equally adamant about eliminating the diversity visa lottery program.

Winning support from a majority of the Senate GOP conference for an immigration deal will require getting these three senators on board. 


Sens. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsSenate weighs new Russia response amid Trump backlash This week: GOP mulls vote on ‘abolish ICE’ legislation Dem infighting erupts over Supreme Court pick MORE (R-Maine) and Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinSenate Dems build huge cash edge in battlegrounds Morrisey accuses Manchin of 'lying' to Trump, attacks ‘liberal’ record The Hill's Morning Report — Trump, Putin meet under cloud of Mueller’s Russia indictments MORE (D-W.Va.)

Collins and Manchin represent the Senate’s political center and have hosted regular meetings of moderates to find common ground on immigration.

Neither lawmaker had been as involved in Senate immigration negotiations as their colleagues mentioned above but they sprung into action after an impasse on the issue shut the government down for three days last month.

The goal of Collins and Manchin is to keep the conversation going and to produce a result.

Some colleagues with more experience in the issue worry that their large meetings of centrists are too unwieldy to produce results, but Flake has praised those sessions as a “safe space” to share ideas.

Whatever way the bloc of centrists swings will determine the final shape of the Senate immigration bill.

Many of the Democrats in the group face tough reelections in states won by Trump and could be tempted to accept some of the broader reforms Republicans are pushing.  


Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.)

Schumer was the leading co-author of the 2013 comprehensive reform bill and is the political mastermind of the Democratic caucus.

Durbin may have more credibility with Dreamers because he has worked more closely with their community over the years. Yet, it is Schumer who will have the ultimate say on whether Democrats strike a deal with Republicans.

A lot will depend on how much ground Republicans are willing to give. If they insist on limiting the weight of family relationships in granting green cards, Schumer will have to decide whether to accept a compromise or to take the issue to voters in 2018 and 2020.