McConnell keeps firm grip on immigration debate

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGOP lambasts Trump over performance in Helsinki Overnight Defense: Washington reeling from Trump, Putin press conference Feehery: The long game MORE (R-Ky.), who promised what was expected to be a free-for-all immigration debate, is keeping his hand firmly on the wheel. 

The Senate is indeed tackling immigration, but McConnell on Tuesday indicated the debate will conclude at the end of this week. So unless there is a bipartisan breakthrough over the next 48-72 hours on an issue Congress has tried to resolve for more than a decade, immigration reform will once again fall short. 

By limiting the debate to a few days and expressing his preference for a GOP proposal that mirrors President TrumpDonald John TrumpShocking summit with Putin caps off Trump’s turbulent Europe trip GOP lambasts Trump over performance in Helsinki Trump stuns the world at Putin summit MORE’s four-point immigration plan — which doesn’t have the votes to pass — McConnell has significantly influenced the process in the upper chamber. 

He’s also signaled to Democrats that the price for debating immigration will be tough votes for their vulnerable incumbents on issues such as sanctuary cities.

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On Tuesday, the Kentucky Republican proposed a vote on a measure to reduce federal aid to cities that do not cooperate in enforcing federal immigration law but was quickly rebutted by 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.), who objected.

 

McConnell is siding with Republicans who argue that anything falling short of Trump’s plan has a slim chance of becoming law.

By doing that, McConnell is opting not to box in Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanGOP lambasts Trump over performance in Helsinki Trump stuns the world at Putin summit Former Trump aide says he canceled CNN appearance over 'atrocious' Helsinki coverage MORE (R-Wis.). Democrats and some Republicans maintain a clean “Dreamer” bill would pass the House if Ryan allowed for such a vote. While the Senate won’t approve that bill, the chamber could feasibly pass a bipartisan compromise. Such a measure would likely attract broad criticism from conservatives in the House, which didn’t act on a Senate-passed immigration bill in 2013.

Ryan, who would face heat from Republicans in swing districts to act on a Senate-cleared measure, has been warned not to act on any bill conservatives consider “amnesty.” 

McConnell backs a proposal sponsored by 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), Sen. Tom CottonThomas (Tom) Bryant CottonOvernight 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 Hillicon Valley: Justice Department appeals AT&T-Time Warner ruling | New report on election security | FBI agent testifies in marathon hearing MORE (R-Ark.) and several other Republicans that would codify Trump’s call to limit the weight of family relationships in granting green cards and overhaul the diversity visa lottery program.

“I believe it deserves [the] support of every senator who’s ready to move beyond making points and actually making a law,” McConnell said on the Senate floor.

GOP lawmakers say McConnell’s support for the Secure and Succeed Act will have an impact on the debate.

“Anytime you have the majority leader’s support, that helps the legislation,” said Cotton. “It shows positive momentum that we’re adding Republican senators as sponsors and especially the majority leader.”

McConnell, who could face both a competitive primary and general election opponent in 2020, is putting pressure on Democrats to vote for the Grassley–Cotton bill by limiting the debate to this week.

It does not appear any Democratic-favored proposals have the necessary 60 votes to advance. The GOP leader is betting that Democrats are willing to give ground because they have pushed for months to have a floor vote on legislation to replace the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

McConnell told reporters that if Congress does not pass a bill by the Presidents Day recess, which begins Saturday, the chamber will move on to other issues.

“We have other things to do,” he told reporters after a Republican policy lunch Tuesday.

“This is an issue we’ve been talking about literally for years,” he added, noting that GOP negotiators have recently “spent three months talking to the Democrats about this.”

This has left some Democrats to wonder if McConnell is pushing his thumb on the scale a little too hard by expressing a clear preference for one bill and limiting the floor debate to only a few days.

“Do you think he wants to get a result?” asked one Democratic lawmaker. “That doesn’t sound like an open process.”

A senior Democratic aide said, “How freewheeling it is is an unanswered question,” referring to the floor debate.

When addressing immigration last week, McConnell said “anyone who gets to 60 [votes] wins.”

McConnell on Tuesday pushed back against suggestions that he’s controlling the Senate debate behind the scenes.

He said his promise of a free and fair debate doesn’t give Democrats carte blanche to dictate the terms of what passes.

“I’m not trying to dictate to them what they offer. They shouldn’t be trying to dictate to us what we offer. Let’s just get started,” he said.

He argued that the Senate should be able to find out in the next few days whether there are 60 votes for any immigration proposal. The current makeup of the Senate includes 51 Republicans and 49 senators who caucus with the Democrats.

Republican lawmakers say the dynamic has changed compared to 2013, when Senate Democrats controlled the chamber and passed a comprehensive immigration bill with unanimous Democratic support and 14 Republicans.

Democrats such as Senate Minority Whip Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinThis week: GOP mulls vote on ‘abolish ICE’ legislation Dems launch pressure campaign over migrant families Kavanaugh paper chase heats up MORE (Ill.), a leading voice on the fate of “Dreamers,” or immigrants who came to the country as children, hope they can get 11 Republicans to back a proposal that has the unanimous support of their caucus.

Democrats note that 11 of the 14 Republicans who voted for comprehensive immigration reform in 2013 are still in the chamber, the perfect number to get a plan with majority Democratic support over the 60-vote hurdle to end a filibuster.

But members of McConnell’s leadership team are dousing the prospects of that happening. 

“Sen. Durbin was quoted this morning saying his goal was to get all Democrats and 11 Republicans to vote for a bill in the Senate, but I would just point out that is not a pathway to success,” said Senate Republican Whip John CornynJohn CornynMcConnell: Russians are not our friends Russians' indictment casts shadow ahead of Trump-Putin summit Top GOP senator: Trump should be 'clear-eyed' going into meeting with Putin MORE (Texas).

“That says nothing about what happens in the House and that says nothing about the necessity of a presidential signature,” he added.

The movement of the Senate’s political center toward Trump’s position in recent days was reflected by a proposal unveiled Monday by Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeGOP senator: Senate should be 'disgusted' by Helsinki summit Flake to introduce resolution countering Trump's Russia summit rhetoric Senate GOP poised to break record on Trump's court picks MORE (R-Ariz.), who co-authored a bipartisan proposal with Durbin last year to protect Dreamers from deportation.

Flake joined Sens. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamTrump stuns the world at Putin summit Overnight Defense: Washington reeling from Trump, Putin press conference Ryan: 'The president must appreciate that Russia is not our ally' MORE (R-S.C.) and Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerSenators urge DOJ to probe whether Russians posed as Islamic extremist hackers to harass US military families GOP moderates hint at smooth confirmation ahead for Kavanaugh Overnight Defense: VA pick breezes through confirmation hearing | House votes to move on defense bill negotiations | Senate bill would set 'stringent' oversight on North Korea talks MORE (R-Colo.) and three Democrats last year to support a bipartisan immigration framework that created a 10- to 12-year pathway to citizenship for Dreamers and set aside $2.7 billion to strengthen the border.

Flake’s newest proposal would allocate $25 billion for a border trust fund, limiting the maximum amount available for border improvements per year to $1.8 billion

It would limit family-based immigrant visas to spouses and children, and reallocate visas to alleviate the family-sponsored immigrant backlog. It would also eliminate visa caps for specific countries.

The plan, however, didn’t win any praise from Schumer, who pointed out Tuesday afternoon that it didn’t have any Democratic co-sponsors.