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 TrumpSchiff: Surveillance warrant docs show that Nunes memo 'misrepresented and distorted these applications' Chicago detention facility under investigation following allegations of abuse of migrant children Ex-Trump aide: Surveillance warrants are 'complete ignorance' and 'insanity' 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 McConnellPelosi: 'Thug' Putin not welcome in Congress GOP to White House: End summit mystery Sunk judicial pick spills over into Supreme Court fight 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 CornynThe Hill's Morning Report — Trump and Congress at odds over Russia Senate GOP attempts to wave Trump off second Putin summit Senators push to clear backlog in testing rape kits 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 DurbinChicago detention facility under investigation following allegations of abuse of migrant children Senate approves resolution warning Trump not to hand over US officials Deal to fix family separations hits snag in the Senate 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 SchumerData confirm that marijuana decriminalization is long overdue Pollster: Kavanaugh will get Dem votes Democrats slam Trump for considering Putin’s ’absurd’ request to question Americans 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 FlakeHistory argues for Democratic Senate gains GOP to White House: End summit mystery The Hill's Morning Report — Trump and Congress at odds over Russia MORE (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSunday shows preview: Questions linger over Trump-Putin summit Soccer ball Putin gifted to Trump gets routine security screening Graham: Biggest problem is Trump ‘believes meddling equals collusion’ 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 TillisKey GOP senator says ‘no question’ Russia is meddling in U.S. affairs GOP Senator: 'Very inappropriate' for Trump to discuss allowing Russia to question US citizens Anti-Trump protesters hold candlelight vigil by White House MORE (R-N.C.), James LankfordJames Paul LankfordGOP seeks separation from Trump on Russia Hillicon Valley: EU hits Google with record B fine | Trump tries to clarify Russia remarks | Sinclair changing deal to win over FCC | Election security bill gets traction | Robocall firm exposed voter data Election security bill picks up new support in Senate 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 GrassleyKavanaugh returns questionnaire to Senate panel Sunk judicial pick spills over into Supreme Court fight Andrew Wheeler must reverse damage to American heartland 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 CollinsThe Hill's Morning Report — Russia furor grips Washington Overnight Health Care: Novartis pulls back on drug price hikes | House Dems launch Medicare for All caucus | Trump officials pushing ahead on Medicaid work requirements Senate panel to vote next week on banning 'gag clauses' in pharmacy contracts MORE (R-Maine) and Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinHistory argues for Democratic Senate gains Pollster: Kavanaugh will get Dem votes Overnight Health Care: Trump officials explore importing prescription drugs | Key ObamaCare, drug pricing regs under review | GOP looks to blunt attacks on rising premiums | Merck to lower some drug prices 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.