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McConnell promises immigration debate if government reopens

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOn The Money: Unemployment gains lower than expected | Jobs report lights fire under coronavirus relief talks GOP senators back Christian school's push for COVID-19 carve-out Bipartisan governors call on Congress to pass coronavirus relief package MORE (R-Ky.) on Monday promised to take up an immigration bill protecting an estimated 800,000 "Dreamers" from deportation and allow an open amendment process if Democrats agree to reopen the government.

The Senate will vote at noon on a three-week funding resolution to end the government shutdown that began at midnight Saturday. The legislation includes an extension of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).

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Democrats have been pressing McConnell for a vote on the Dreamers legislation, and it is unclear whether his latest commitments will be enough to win them over.

With some Republicans expected to vote against the bill, nearly a dozen Democratic votes will likely be needed to clear a 60-vote procedural hurdle. 

Senate Democrats and Republicans will try to negotiate an immigration compromise before the pending stopgap measure would expire on Feb. 8, if that stopgap is approved.

If they fail to reach a deal, McConnell promised he will bring an immigration bill to the floor in February.

But McConnell said his promise would only be good if Democrats agree to reopen the government.

“Should these issues not be resolved by the time the funding bill before us expires on Feb. 8, so long as the government remains open, it would be my intention to take up legislation here in the Senate that would address DACA, border security and related issues as well as disaster relief,” McConnell said, referring to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program started by President Obama that President TrumpDonald John TrumpAppeals court OKs White House diverting military funding to border wall construction Pentagon: Tentative meeting between spy agencies, Biden transition set for early next week Conservative policy director calls Section 230 repeal an 'existential threat' for tech MORE is winding down.

The GOP leader pledged “this immigration debate will have a level playing field at the outset and an amendment process that is fair to all sides,” he said.

Behind the scenes, a group of centrist Democrats and Republicans have been trying to work out a deal on immigration.

Democrats leaving a meeting of moderate senators on Monday morning said they are still discussing how to get a firmer commitment for a vote to protect young immigrants in the country illegally.

"We just need a commitment on that that's firm, that we know we're going to be on it, the question is how firm the commitment [will be]" said Sen Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineOvernight Defense: Lawmakers release compromise defense bill in defiance of Trump veto threat | Senate voting next week on blocking UAE arms sale | Report faults lack of training, 'chronic fatigue' in military plane crashes Senate to vote next week on blocking Trump's UAE arms sale Congress set for chaotic year-end sprint MORE (D-Va.) leaving the meeting in Sen Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Mastercard - Congress inches closer to virus relief deal Lawmakers pressure leaders to reach COVID-19 relief deal Biden says GOP senators have called to congratulate him MORE's (R-Maine) office.

Sen Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharSenate committee advances bill for national Latino museum Senate committee approves nominations of three FEC commissioners Scammers step up efforts to target older Americans during pandemic MORE (D-Minn.) said they need a "real commitment" to bring up an immigration bill.

No Democrats said leaving the meeting that they are changing their votes. Though when asked how he would vote at a noon vote on Monday, Sen Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonThe Hill's Morning Report - Fearing defeat, Trump claims 'illegal' ballots The Hill's Morning Report - Biden inches closer to victory Senate Democrats want to avoid Kavanaugh 2.0 MORE (D-Fla.) said he thought that vote could be postponed if negotiators need more time.

Republicans who attended the meeting said McConnell should have been more specific with his promise to ensure Democrats vote "yes."

"I do think it would be helpful if the language were a little bit stronger," Collins told reporters.

But she also gave McConnell credit, saying the GOP leader "had moved to accommodate the concerns that have been raised" about needing a commitment on immigration.

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGraham reports 'record-breaking' 9M haul during 2020 campaign Lawmakers pressure leaders to reach COVID-19 relief deal Biden: Trump attending inauguration is 'of consequence' to the country MORE (R-S.C.) predicted McConnell will make a "firmer commitment when it seems like it will matter."

"I think if Mitch were a little firmer as to 'we are going to move to immigration. ... There will be a process where everybody will be heard,'" he said.

Graham suggested that Democrats go to Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerBipartisan governors call on Congress to pass coronavirus relief package Pelosi, Schumer endorse 8 billion plan as basis for stimulus talks Funding bill hits snag as shutdown deadline looms MORE (D-N.Y.) and tell him that they will vote for the continuing resolution if McConnell will use more specific language.

McConnell has said he intends to take up an immigration bill if a larger deal can't be reached by Feb. 8.

But Democrats are quick to point to previous commitments to GOP Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeBiden eyeing Cindy McCain for UK ambassador position: report Profiles in cowardice: Trump's Senate enablers McSally concedes Arizona Senate race MORE (Ariz.) and Collins that did not come to fruition.

Flake, asked how Democrats could trust McConnell, noting that the GOP leader was making a "pretty high-profile promise."

Republican leaders, however, said Democrats have no reason to be distrustful.

"I think they ought to believe him because he's a trustworthy, honorable person. And I realize there's ... a trust deficit up here generally. But I think one of the first steps to regaining that trust is for the leader to make that commitment and follow through on it," said Senate Republican Whip John CornynJohn CornynLawmakers pressure leaders to reach COVID-19 relief deal The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Capital One — Pressure builds as UK approves COVID-19 vaccine Biden brushes off criticism of budget nominee MORE (R-Texas).

Cornyn said Democrats would not get a more ironclad promise.

"No, I think that's all they're going to get," he said.

Peter Sullivan and Jordain Carney contributed.

Updated at 10:59 a.m.