McConnell: 'Whoever gets to 60 wins' on immigration

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellThe Mueller report is a deterrent to government service Senate Republicans tested on Trump support after Mueller Anti-smoking advocates question industry motives for backing higher purchasing age MORE (R-Ky.) is pledging to begin a free-flowing immigration debate next week, saying any proposal that gets 60 votes could get through the upper chamber.

McConnell, known for keeping his cards close to the vest, said Tuesday that the impending fiscal showdown will mark a “rare occasion” for an open debate and an “opportunity for a thousand flowers to bloom.” 

“I’m going to structure in such a way that’s fair to everyone. ... Whoever gets to 60 wins,” he said during a press conference. 

When a reporter noted there are myriad proposals being floated, McConnell laughed before stressing that he doesn’t have a “secret plan.” 

“I can’t be specific because there’s no secret plan here to try to push this in any direction. The Senate is going to work its will, and I hope that we will end up passing something,” he said. 

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The move is putting the chamber on the precipice of a heated floor fight with senators largely in the dark about what the endgame will be, or even how the GOP leader plans to start the debate. 

 

“I know everybody wants an advantage, but he’s been pretty scrupulous about not giving anybody any ideas about where he’s starting,” said Sen. John CornynJohn Cornyn Embattled senators fill coffers ahead of 2020 Trump struggles to reshape Fed Congress opens door to fraught immigration talks MORE (Texas), the No. 2 Senate Republican. 

Asked what should be in the Senate’s base bill, he added: “That’s the $64,000 question everybody wants to know, and Sen. McConnell hasn’t told us.” 

Last month, McConnell promised a debate on immigration if the government shutdown ended. Democrats, led by Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerHillicon Valley: House Dems subpoena full Mueller report | DOJ pushes back at 'premature' subpoena | Dems reject offer to view report with fewer redactions | Trump camp runs Facebook ads about Mueller report | Uber gets B for self-driving cars Dem legal analyst says media 'overplayed' hand in Mueller coverage Former FBI official praises Barr for 'professional' press conference MORE (N.Y.), subsequently agreed to vote to open the government after a three-day shutdown.

Sen. James LankfordJames Paul LankfordHow Republicans are battling judicial obstructionism today GOP gets used to saying 'no' to Trump GOP to go 'nuclear' with rules change for Trump nominations MORE (R-Okla.), who has been involved in the immigration negotiations, also said on Tuesday that he does not know because “McConnell is the only one who can say what the base bill is going to be.” 

What will be included in the Senate’s bill has come under growing scrutiny as several groups have failed to produce an agreement that could reach 60 votes — the number needed to overcome a filibuster. 

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump calls Sri Lankan prime minister following church bombings Ex-Trump lawyer: Mueller knew Trump had to call investigation a 'witch hunt' for 'political reasons' The biggest challenge from the Mueller Report depends on the vigilance of everyone MORE shot down a new proposal from Sens. John McCainJohn Sidney McCain10 factors making Russia election interference the most enduring scandal of the Obama era Earth Day founder's daughter: Most Republican leaders believe in climate change in private Trump gives nod to vulnerable GOP Sen. McSally with bill signing MORE (R-Ariz.) and Christopher CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsMenendez, Rubio lead Senate effort to regulate Venezuelan sanctions Dem report questions State Dept. decision to revoke award to Trump critic Senate Dem calls on Trump to apologize for attacks on McCain MORE (D-Del.) that would have included a path to citizenship for immigrants brought into the country illegally as children but did not provide funding for the president’s U.S.-Mexico border wall. 

Cornyn, Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinDurbin calls Mueller report findings on Trump team 'troubling' Congress opens door to fraught immigration talks McConnell: 'Past time' for immigration-border security deal MORE (D-Ill.), Rep. Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerDemocrats leave impeachment on the table House Dem dismisses impeachment push: 'I'd rather defeat' Trump at ballot box Democrats renew attacks on Trump attorney general MORE (D-Md.) and Rep. Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyWatchdog: Custodial staff alleged sexual harassment in lawmakers' offices John Legend, Chrissy Teigen lash out at Trump at Dem retreat Republicans call for ex-Trump lawyer Cohen to be referred to DOJ MORE (R-Calif.) have been talking for weeks with little to show for it. The group is made up of parties’ second-ranking lawmakers in each chamber.

“Frankly, I don’t think we’re making a lot of progress,” Hoyer said. 

McConnell had hoped the bipartisan, bicameral negotiations would be able to produce a deal that could win over Senate Democrats, House Republicans and Trump. 

However, such an agreement seems unlikely, as both sides appeared to move further apart amid heated rhetoric and deep policy and political divisions in a midterm election year. Many GOP lawmakers are wary of taking up an immigration bill unless they know it’s backed by Trump.

Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanAppeals court rules House chaplain can reject secular prayers FEC filing: No individuals donated to indicted GOP rep this cycle The Hill's Morning Report - Waiting on Mueller: Answers come on Thursday MORE (R-Wis.) pointed out that talks among leadership are continuing but stressed he will not bring up a bill that the president doesn’t back. 

“We’re not going to bring immigration legislation through that the president doesn’t support. We’re working on something here in the House. We’re working on bipartisan negotiations. It’s going to be a bill that we support and the president supports,” he said during a press conference on Tuesday. 

Congress has until March 5 to pass a fix for the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which allows immigrants brought into the country illegally as children to work and go to school. 

If they fail to get a deal, roughly 700,000 immigrants will eventually be at risk of being deported because the Trump administration decided last year to nix the program. 

White House chief of staff John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE said Tuesday that Trump will likely not extend the deadline because the administration is “not so sure” he has that legal authority. 

He also noted, according to The Washington Post, that Trump’s framework would roughly double the number of immigrants currently getting legal protections. 

“The difference between 690 [thousand] and 1.8 million were the people that some would say were too afraid to sign up, others would say were too lazy to get off their asses, but they didn’t sign up,” he said. 

What ends up in the Senate’s base bill is entirely up to McConnell, who has been careful not to tip his hand. 

But the GOP leader is under an intense lobbying campaign from both sides, with the White House — including Kelly, legislative affairs director Marc Short and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen NielsenKirstjen Michele NielsenOvernight Energy: Mueller report reveals Russian efforts to sow division over coal jobs | NYC passes sweeping climate bill likened to 'Green New Deal' | EPA official says agency may ban asbestos | Energy Dept. denies Perry planning exit The Hill's 12:30 Report: Inside the Mueller report Energy Dept denies report that Rick Perry is planning to leave Trump admin MORE — making a pitch this week. 

“Look at our framework,” Short told reporters after the meeting. “I think we’d advocate our framework to be the base bill.”

The Trump proposal gave a path to citizenship for roughly 1.8 million immigrants in exchange for tens of billions in border wall funding and changes to legal immigration. 

A group of GOP senators, including Cornyn and Lankford, are working to turn the framework into legislation ahead of next week’s debate. 

“We’re not negotiating against ourselves and we’re also determined not to just go through a futile effort here — in other words, to try to pass something that the president won’t sign,” Cornyn said. 

Trump’s proposal has been panned by Democrats, with Durbin predicting on Tuesday that it can’t get 60 votes because no Democrat will support it. 

Sen. Mike RoundsMarion (Mike) Michael RoundsGOP gets used to saying 'no' to Trump On The Money: Wells Fargo CEO steps down | Trump vows to keep funding for Special Olympics | House panel approves marijuana banking bill | Controversial Fed pick gains support in Senate Controversial Fed pick gains support in GOP Senate MORE (R-S.D.) added that using Trump’s framework as a starting point would likely be viewed as too broad and not bipartisan. 

“That can’t be the beginning because then the Democrats will say that’s not neutral,” he said. 

Sens. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakePollster says Trump unlikely to face 'significant' primary challenge Trump gives nod to vulnerable GOP Sen. McSally with bill signing Flake opens up about threats against him and his family MORE (R-Ariz.), Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsSenate Republicans tested on Trump support after Mueller Collins: Mueller report includes 'an unflattering portrayal' of Trump GOP senator: 'No problem' with Mueller testifying MORE (R-Maine), Rounds and Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinOn The Money: Cain 'very committed' to Fed bid despite opposition | Pelosi warns no US-UK trade deal if Brexit harms Irish peace | Ivanka Trump says she turned down World Bank job Cain says he won't back down, wants to be nominated to Fed Pro-life Christians are demanding pollution protections MORE (D-W.Va.) floated that McConnell could bring up an unrelated “shell” bill as the Senate’s starting point. That way, the Senate would essentially be starting from scratch. 

Rounds is part of a group of senators who have been advocating a narrow start to the Senate’s debate that would include a fix for DACA and border security, but leave more controversial fights — such as a pathway to citizenship, the diversity visa lottery and family-based immigration, which Republicans refer to as “chain migration” — to be sorted out on the Senate floor. 

Yet, the White House and some GOP senators have rejected the idea, even as a starting point, claiming it can’t pass the House or garner the support of Trump. The stalemate and the looming deadline is sparking private discussion among senators about potentially punting on the immigration fight by passing a yearlong DACA and border security patch. 

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamHillicon Valley: House Dems subpoena full Mueller report | DOJ pushes back at 'premature' subpoena | Dems reject offer to view report with fewer redactions | Trump camp runs Facebook ads about Mueller report | Uber gets B for self-driving cars DOJ: Dem subpoena for Mueller report is 'premature and unnecessary' Dems reject Barr's offer to view Mueller report with fewer redactions MORE (R-S.C.) said it was the “fallback position … but that’s most likely where we’re going to go.” 

He also signaled that the McCain–Coons proposal is unlikely to pass because it includes a path to citizenship, which is considered a non-starter for some Republicans.

“There’s too many moving parts,” he said. “[And] when you start talking about chain migration and doing away [with] the diversity lottery you run into a wall.”