Senate pivots to stopgap 'Dreamers' deal

The Senate is weighing a short-term fix for "Dreamers" as lawmakers struggle to break a stalemate that has stalled the chamber's debate.  

The hunt for a fallback option comes ahead of the March 5 deadline created by President TrumpDonald John TrumpScarborough mocks 'Deflection Don' over transgender troop ban Pelosi condemns Trump's 'cowardly, disgusting' ban on transgender troops Trump moves to ban most transgender people from serving in military MORE’s decision to end the immigration program and amid fresh questions about what, if anything, can clear Congress and win over the White House.

Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeBernie Sanders to Trump: Firing Mueller 'an impeachable offense' Overnight Health Care: House passes .3T omnibus | Bill boosts funds for NIH, opioid treatment | Senators spar over ObamaCare fix | 'Right to Try' bill heads to the Senate The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE (R-Ariz.) is in talks with Sen. Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampDemocrats desperate for a win hail spending bill Koch-backed group launches six-figure ad buy against Heitkamp Overnight Defense: Senate sides with Trump on military role in Yemen | Dem vets push for new war authorization on Iraq anniversary | General says time isn't 'right' for space corps MORE (D-N.D.) about a plan to tie a three-year extension of protections for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients with roughly $7.6 billion in border security.

“I can promise that I’ll be back on the floor, again and again, motioning for a vote until we pass a bill providing relief for those struggling due to our inaction,” Flake said, outlining his plan.

Passing a years-long immigration stopgap is no one’s first choice for restoring protections from the Obama-era program, which the Trump administration announced it was ending last year. Democrats largely refused to touch the idea during the Senate’s debate, while GOP Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioRubio: 'Hyperventilating' about Bolton unfounded George Clooney writes Parkland students: 'You make me proud of my country again' Biden praises Parkland students fighting for gun reform: ‘They’re going to win’ MORE (Fla.) referred to it as “Plan Z.”

But senators appeared increasingly resigned to any potential immigration legislation being a stopgap patch, rather than a permanent fix, after months of closed-door negotiations failed to produce a deal.

How long a potential stopgap agreement could last remains unclear. Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamBernie Sanders to Trump: Firing Mueller 'an impeachable offense' The Memo: Lawyer’s exit signals harder line by Trump Senators introduced revised version of election cyber bill MORE (R-S.C.) predicted Congress would only be able to punt into 2019, kicking the hot-button issue past the midterm elections.

“I think we wind up punting. I think we’ll do a one-year extension of DACA and punt,” he said.

GOP Sens. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneSenate GOP chairman calls on Zuckerberg to testify GOP pushes to change Senate rules for Trump With shutdown nearing, focus turns to Rand Paul MORE (R-S.D.), Jerry MoranGerald (Jerry) MoranOvernight Cybersecurity: House Intel votes to release Russia report | House lawmakers demand Zuckerberg testify | Senators unveil updated election cyber bill Five takeaways from Mark Zuckerberg's media blitz House panel calls for Zuckerberg to testify MORE (R-Kan.) and Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanLawmakers introduce bipartisan bill to speed up infrastructure permitting Overnight Tech: Zuckerberg breaks silence on Cambridge Analytica controversy | Senate passes sex trafficking bill | EU pushes new tax on tech | YouTube toughens rules on gun videos Senate passes controversial online sex trafficking bill MORE (R-Ohio) have offered a bill to provide legal protections for current DACA recipients. But it could struggle to win Democratic support because it includes tens of billions in wall funding without a path to citizenship and doesn’t address the larger 1.8 million population of potential DACA recipients.

With the Senate turning back this week to confirming Trump’s nominees, senators are pointing to a funding bill that needs to passed by March 23 to prevent a government shutdown as their next shot.

“Obviously we're going to have to deal with the DACA issue probably on the [omnibus] because of what has happened,” Sen. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerTrump signs massive spending bill, backing away from veto threat The Hill's 12:30 Report Deficit hawks encourage Trump veto of spending bill MORE (R-Tenn.) told reporters earlier this month, predicting the Senate would settle on including an extension.

Sen. John CornynJohn CornynSenate approves .3 trillion spending bill, sending to Trump GOP senator threatened to hold up bill over provision to honor late political rival: report Overnight Health Care: House passes .3T omnibus | Bill boosts funds for NIH, opioid treatment | Senators spar over ObamaCare fix | 'Right to Try' bill heads to the Senate MORE (R-Texas), the No. 2 Senate Republican, left the door open to dropping immigration into the mammoth spending bill, saying “some temporary provision” could be included if both sides can reach an agreement.

An aide said that Flake and Heitkamp are discussing trying to get the DACA extension included in mammoth omnibus legislation. And a spokesman for Flake added that the GOP senator would support trying to link the proposals.

There’s no guarantee a DACA-border security stopgap could get the 60 needed to clear the Senate as a stand-alone bill, or that leadership is willing to include it in the omnibus. And its path would be even rockier, if not impossible, in the House.

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellYou just can't keep good health policy down Trump threatens to veto omnibus over lack of wall funding, DACA fix Democrats desperate for a win hail spending bill MORE (R-Ky.) declined to say if the tight-lipped GOP leader supports a years-long immigration fix. Asked if McConnell would oppose including DACA in the omnibus, the aide pointed to his comments after the Senate failed to pass a deal.

McConnell left the door open to returning to immigration if a plan emerged that could pass both the Senate and the more conservative House and had what has so far remained elusive: Trump’s support.

“If a solution is developed in the future that can pass both the House and the Senate and be signed into law by the president, it should be considered. But for that to happen, Democrats will need to take a second look at these core elements of necessary reform,” he said.

But Democrats and the White House appear increasingly dug in, with Trump and Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerFox News host Watters says spending bill was 'huge defeat' for Trump Amtrak to rename Rochester station after Louise Slaughter Conscience protections for health-care providers should be standard MORE (D-N.Y.) exchanging barbs.

Trump, during his Conservative Political Action Conference speech, said Democrats had “totally abandoned” DACA recipients.

“They don't want to do anything about DACA, I'm telling you, and it's very possible that DACA won't happen,” he told the conservative crowd.

Meanwhile, Schumer said “it’s clear to everyone but President Trump” that the president is to blame.

“Democrats have been willing to negotiate for months, and have forged several bipartisan deals, but his refusal to take yes for an answer led to his partisan plan that only got 39 votes,” he said.

Democrats have been loath to embrace a short-term fix because they believe it provides no long-term security for “Dreamers," immigrants brought to the country illegally as children. Schumer hasn’t weighed in on the proposal.

Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinTop Senate Dems demand report from Trump on UK nerve agent attack 'Dreamers' fix blocked in Senate GOP leaders to Trump: Leave Mueller alone MORE (D-Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat and a key senator in the immigration fight, is still urging action on immigration before March 5.

“Congress still has a chance to address the DACA crisis before March 5th, when 1,000 people will start losing their legal status every single day,” he said in a tweet.

With no must-pass legislation expected to come up before the deadline, Democrats’ options are limited. They could, for example, try to grind the Senate to a halt by launching an hours-long floor speech, limit the ability for committees to meet or try to get consent to pass an immigration bill.

No Democratic senator has signaled they are planning to create procedural headaches and much of the political oxygen is being sucked up by the debate over gun control following a shooting at a Florida high school, where 17 people were killed.

One Democratic aide described the current DACA debate as a “wait-and-see game.”

“[We’re] waiting to see what kind of traction Mr. Flake garners from his caucus on his 3-year patch proposal,” the aide said.

Two court decisions are further throwing the DACA timeline into limbo and helping feed Congress’s inertia, where lawmakers frequently wait until deadlines to tackle any legislation.

Sen. James LankfordJames Paul LankfordConservatives balk over funding bill ahead of shutdown  Overnight Cybersecurity: House Intel votes to release Russia report | House lawmakers demand Zuckerberg testify | Senators unveil updated election cyber bill Senators introduced revised version of election cyber bill MORE (R-Okla.) said that even though two courts ruled the DACA program has to stay on the books for now, “eventually that deadline [is] coming.”

“It's not going to be March 5, it looks like, but it may be early April, it may be other time periods,” he told an Oklahoma NPR station. “[But] some federal court is going to step out and is going to rule one executive can change another executive's decisions.”

House Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanYou just can't keep good health policy down Trump blasts Congress for sending him omnibus bill that 'nobody read' Students bash Congress for inaction on gun control MORE (R-Wis.) has set up an end of March deadline for action in his chamber and pledged to only bring up a bill that has Trump’s support.

Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar (Texas) said he approached Rep. Bob GoodlatteRobert (Bob) William GoodlatteDoug Collins to run for House Judiciary chair House Judiciary chair subpoenas DOJ for FBI documents House Judiciary chair to subpoena for FBI documents MORE (R-Va.) and Rep. Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyHouse Republicans grumble about the 'worst process ever' House easily passes .3 trillion spending bill Trump can save Republicans and restore sanity to California in 2018 MORE (R-Calif.), the House majority leader, on the floor and urged them to do “queen of the hill” on immigration, pitting Goodlatte and Rep. Michael McCaul's (R-Texas) bill against a narrower, bipartisan proposal by Reps. Will HurdWilliam Ballard HurdDCCC adds first black candidates to list of top candidates Overnight Cybersecurity: Trump-linked data firm Cambridge Analytica attracts scrutiny | House passes cyber response team bill | What to know about Russian cyberattacks on energy grid Republicans on defensive over Russia report finding MORE (R-Texas) and Pete AguilarPeter (Pete) Ray AguilarPerry defends proposed Energy Dept. cuts Hispanic Caucus chair to Ryan on DACA: ‘You and I, let's get this done’ ‘Dreamer’ deadline passes by without clear path forward MORE (D-Calif.).

Under queen of the hill, competing proposals are voted on by the House and whichever gets the most votes is passed. But a top GOP leadership aide told The Hill "there is no queen of the hill strategy, the Goodlatte-McCaul bill is what is being whipped."

And Cuellar said Goodlatte told him the whipping operation had still not garnered 218 votes.

"They were whipping last week, last Wednesday, before we took off. … Thursday, they did not have 218. They didn’t want to give me the numbers, but said, ‘Well, we’re working on it,’ ” said Cuellar.

But Goodlatte said the conversation with Cuellar happened "weeks ago."

“The Securing America’s Future Act is the product of months worth of meetings and discussions with a diverse range of members and stakeholders. It is clear that this legislation is the only bill that can get a majority of Republican votes in the House," Goodlatte said of his proposal.

"Last week, we had a positive whip count and we are working quickly to build on that support so that we have the votes needed to pass the Securing America’s Future Act in the House,” he added.

Despite Goodlatte's optimism on capturing a majority of Republicans, Cuellar said the House Judiciary Committee chairman struck down his queen of the hill proposal, saying, " ‘No, my bill won’t pass, and your bill will pass. You’ll get 30, 40, 50 Republicans. We need our bill to pass — the Goodlatte bill.’ ” 

— Mike Lillis contributed