Senate hits wall on immigration

Senate hits wall on immigration
© Greg Nash

The Senate’s immigration debate is hitting a wall before it even gets started.

Democrats blocked Republicans from setting up votes on Tuesday, while GOP senators themselves outlined different approaches for how to build a compromise that could get 60 votes — the supermajority required to overcome a filibuster and clear legislation from the Senate.

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Conservatives are trying to draw a hard line on the White House framework as the only game in town that President TrumpDonald John TrumpConservatives express concern over House GOP immigration bill Poll: McSally holds 14-point lead in Arizona GOP Senate primary Trump defends Nielsen amid criticism over family separations MORE will sign.

“The president’s framework is not an opening bid in negotiations. It is a best and final offer,” Sen. Tom CottonThomas (Tom) Bryant CottonSenate GOP tries to defuse Trump border crisis GOP senators drafting legislation to keep immigrant families together Hillicon Valley: Supreme Court takes up Apple case | Senate votes to block ZTE deal | Officials testify on Clinton probe report | Russia's threat to undersea cables | Trump tells Pentagon to create 'space force' | FCC begins T-Mobile, Sprint deal review MORE (R-Ark.) told reporters.

The proposal would provide a path to citizenship for 1.8 million immigrants brought into the country illegally as children in exchange for $25 billion in border security, as well as more controversial changes to legal immigration and interior enforcement.

Supporters argue it represents a significant concession from Trump, who backed deporting the roughly 11 million immigrants currently in the country illegally as part of his presidential bid.

There are doubts, however, that it could get enough support from Democrats to reach 60 votes. No Democrat has come out to support the bill, though Cotton thinks centrists could be pulled over.

And while the Trump proposal has the support of GOP leaders, the caucus is not united.

Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakePoll: McSally holds 14-point lead in Arizona GOP Senate primary GOP senators introduce bill to prevent family separations at border McCain, Coons: Trump should withdraw controversial refugee nominee MORE (R-Ariz.) said that while it had “informed the discussion,” senators needed to work out the endgame amongst themselves.

“I think this is a Senate product. He has his framework already out there. That’s informed the discussion, but we need to work this out ourselves,” he said.

With the floor debate largely at a standstill, rank-and-file Republicans are drafting a range of alternatives.

These include a years-long patch to the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that Trump is unwinding and broader bills that would address each of the “four pillars” agreed to during a bipartisan meeting with Trump last month.

“We’re beginning to refine whether or not it’s a two-pillar bill or a four-pillar bill, and what are the combinations that would allow it to be four pillar,” said Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamOvernight Health Care — Presented by the Association of American Medical Colleges — Trump officials move to expand non-ObamaCare health plans | 'Zero tolerance' policy stirs fears in health community | New ObamaCare repeal plan McCain, Coons: Trump should withdraw controversial refugee nominee GOP senators drafting legislation to keep immigrant families together MORE (R-S.C.).

Republicans are under pressure from the party’s base to take a hard stance in the negotiations, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellWarren on family separation policy: Trump is ‘taking America to a dark and ugly place’ Senate GOP tries to defuse Trump border crisis Schumer rejects GOP proposal to address border crisis MORE (R-Ky.) is stressing that a bill must be able to pass the House and win the support of Trump.

NumbersUSA is urging its members to call senators and tell them to oppose any bill that doesn’t fulfill “Trump’s promises,” including ending the State Department’s diversity visa lottery program and “chain,” or family-based, immigration. 

Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntGOP senators introduce bill to prevent family separations at border Ernst, Fischer to square off for leadership post Facebook gives 500 pages of answers to lawmakers' data privacy questions MORE (R-Mo.) said a final agreement could still emerge but questioned whether any legislation could win 60 Senate votes and also pass the House. 

“I think it’s going to be interesting to see how the debate develops, and I’m not sure the plan is on the table yet that’s the plan that finally passes,” he said.

A bipartisan group of roughly 20 senators, led by Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsActress Marcia Gay Harden urges Congress to boost Alzheimer's funding 13 GOP senators ask administration to pause separation of immigrant families Trump plan to claw back billion in spending in peril MORE (R-Maine), are searching for a compromise the might be backed by centrists in both parties.

“We’re continuing to have discussions. ... I think we’re making progress, but we’re not there yet. This is a very complex issue, and you pull one thread and unravel a whole other part of the tapestry,” Collins said.

The group had largely been focused on trying to find an agreement that could serve as the starting point of the Senate’s debate, with multiple members of the group floating a narrower deal that focused on a fix for DACA and border security.

But Sen. Mike RoundsMarion (Mike) Michael RoundsGOP senators introduce bill to prevent family separations at border Trump, senators headed for clash on cyber policy GOP support growing for anti-Trump trade bill MORE (R-S.D.) said a subgroup of the coalition is working on a broader proposal that would also deal with changes to family-based immigration and the diversity visa lottery.

“It’s a drafting group that we want to present to the full group,” he said, adding that there could be “several drafting groups.”

Flake is preparing two measures: a three-year DACA and border security patch and a broader measure that would provide a path to citizenship for some DACA recipients in exchange for $25 billion in border security and changes to legal immigration.

Graham and Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinLive coverage: FBI chief, Justice IG testify on critical report Hugh Hewitt to Trump: 'It is 100 percent wrong to separate border-crossing families' Opioid treatment plans must include a trauma-informed approach MORE (D-Ill.) both indicated on Tuesday that they haven’t made a final decision about whether to try to get a vote on their Gang of Six bill that has been repeatedly shot down by Trump and the White House.

Meanwhile, Sen. Christopher CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsAll the times Horowitz contradicted Wray — but nobody seemed to notice Hillicon Valley: Trump hits China with massive tech tariffs | Facebook meets with GOP leaders over bias allegations | Judge sends Manafort to jail ahead of trial | AT&T completes Time Warner purchase Dem senator: Trump Jr. may have given 'false testimony' about meeting with foreign nationals MORE (D-Del.) said he is planning offer his plan with Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainOvernight Defense: States pull National Guard troops over family separation policy | Senators question pick for Afghan commander | US leaves UN Human Rights Council 13 GOP senators ask administration to pause separation of immigrant families McCain, Coons: Trump should withdraw controversial refugee nominee MORE (R-Ariz.), who is battling brain cancer. But Republicans predicted that bill could not get 60 votes as it’s currently written.

“I have tremendous respect for both of them, but I think people are looking for something a bit more robust,” said Sen. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerTrump angers biz groups with 0B tariff threat 13 GOP senators ask administration to pause separation of immigrant families Trump’s midterm suicide plan: Make children cry and mothers mad MORE (R-Tenn.).

The division among Republicans could give leverage to Democrats, who believe they will need to put up the bulk of the votes for any immigration deal in the Senate.

“Let’s do Senate immigration math for a minute. There’s never been … a major immigration measure that’s passed the Senate without an overwhelming Democratic majority and enough Republicans,” Durbin said.

Senators have little time. McConnell wants to end the debate this week, and Trump has set a March 5 deadline, at which point DACA recipients could lose their legal status to stay in the United States.

While the courts could prevent the administration from ending the program, White House chief of staff John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE is warning Trump that won’t extend the deadline.

“I think the time for talking is sort of coming to an end, and now it’s a time for voting,” said Sen. John CornynJohn CornynGOP senators introduce bill to prevent family separations at border Senate GOP tries to defuse Trump border crisis Dem plays audio from child detention center on Senate floor MORE (R-Texas). “If there’s no deal by the end of the week that, I think, leaves the DACA recipients in some jeopardy.”