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A battle over “sanctuary cities” is dividing Senate Republicans.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has teed up legislation that would crack down on cities that don’t comply with federal immigration law.

But its unclear whether the bill can get through the Senate — and not just because of opposition from Democrats.

{mosads}In addition to limiting federal money for sanctuary cities, Sen. David Vitter’s (R-La.) bill would increase the amount of prison time an undocumented immigrant could serve if they re-enter the United States after having previously been deported.

Conservatives like his plan, but it has drawn opposition from Sens. Jeff Flake (Ariz.) and Mike Lee (Utah.), who have concerns about broadly applying mandatory minimum sentences for undocumented immigrants.

The issue of sanctuary cities came to the forefront of national politics after 32-year-old Kathryn Steinle was killed in July in San Francisco, allegedly by an illegal immigrant who had already been deported five times.  

GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump seized on the issue, ensuring it became front-page news.

Conservatives argue that San Francisco is one of hundreds of sanctuary jurisdictions that don’t follow federal immigration law, including not complying with request for Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hold undocumented immigrants until federal officials can take them into custody. 

House Republicans already passed legislation earlier this year that would restrict federal funding for sanctuary cities.

That proposal garnered a veto threat from the White House “undermines current administration efforts to remove the most dangerous convicted criminals” without enacting comprehensive immigration reform.

But Vitter, pointing to Steinle’s death, said that it was “outrageous” the Senate hadn’t backed tougher steps on sanctuary cities.

Under Vitter’s bill, undocumented immigrants would face a minimum of five years in prison if they reenter the United States after previously being convicted of an aggravated felony or twice reentered the country illegally.

That’s a shift from legislation from conservative lawmakers, including Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), which would have applied the five-year minimum sentence to any undocumented immigrant who illegally reentered the country after being deported.

The change was enough for Flake to say that he would vote to proceed with the legislation.

But it’s unclear if Flake or Lee will back it on final passage.

Flake said he hopes “to be able to amend it further on the floor.”

Conn Carroll, a spokesman for Lee, said they are still “evaluating language and will consider whether and what amendments might be necessary if the motion to proceed succeeds.”

Democrats have been tightlipped over whether they will try to block Vitter’s bill. They’ve been careful to back greater cooperation among law enforcement as the solution rather than limiting funding or increasing punishment for undocumented immigrants.

Another complication for McConnell is that Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nevada) wants to link Vitter’s bill to immigration reform.

“We haven’t had a discussion here for two years. For two years we haven’t had a discussion and so all the sudden we’re going to bring up an immigration issue and not talk about the bigger issue,” Heller said.

The Nevada Republican didn’t detail what would be included in his proposal, instead describing it as “comprehensive immigration reform.” 

Heller added that he hasn’t decided whether he’ll back Vitter’s bill if he can’t get his own amendment attached.  

“Haven’t made that decision yet,” Heller said. “One step at a time.”

Asked if the Republican leader will allow amendments, Don Stewart, a spokesperson for McConnell, said that he expects amendments would be considered.

But any push to link broad immigration reform to the issue of sanctuary cities would seem problematic.

McConnell earlier this year said that immigration was likely off the table until at least 2017, telling reporters that he didn’t think it would happen “in this Congress.”

If Heller was successful, it could threaten conservative support for the overall bill, which is currently backed by more than a dozen Republican senators, including Cruz and Marco Rubio (Fla.) both of whom are running for president.

McConnell will need Republicans to stick together if they want to get the “sanctuary cities” legislation over multiple procedural hurdles and to a final vote. 

The Republican leader pressured his colleagues to “reflect” on the merit’s of Vitter’s legislation as they headed back to meet their constituents over the week-long recess.

“The proponents of so-called ‘sanctuary cities’ seem to callously disregard how their policies can hurt others. That’s not right,” he said, adding that Vitter’s legislation will help bring “fairness on this issue.”

But even if he can get every Republican to support starting debate on the legislation, he’ll still need to win over six Democrats.

Tags David Vitter Dean Heller Donald Trump Jeff Flake Marco Rubio Mike Lee Mitch McConnell Ted Cruz

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