Senate braces for showdown over ‘Dreamers’

The Senate is barreling toward a battle on immigration with no clear end game in sight.

The chamber is expected to turn to the issue Monday evening, but where the debate goes after it begins is anyone’s guess.

Senators are predicting a free-for-all, and Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellKey Senate Republican: Criminal justice reform needs more GOP support GOP tensions running high on criminal justice bill Trump flubs speech location at criminal justice conference MORE (R-Ky.) is using a House bill not related to immigration as the base legislation in order to create a fair playing ground.

“It sounds like Senator McConnell’s just going to pull up a shell bill and let people have at it. ... It ought to be pretty fascinating,” said Senate Majority Whip John CornynJohn CornynGOP tensions running high on criminal justice bill US-Saudi relationship enters uncharted territory Senate edges closer to rebuking Trump on Saudi Arabia MORE (R-Texas), McConnell’s top deputy.

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Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinTrump tells McConnell to let Senate vote on criminal justice reform Political opposites come together for Bush funeral Live coverage: Washington honors George HW Bush with state funeral MORE (Ill.), Cornyn’s Democratic counterpart, predicted: “You’re going to hear as many variations as the fertile minds of my colleagues can produce.”

That would be in stark contrast to McConnell’s usual tight grip on proceedings.

“Face it, for years we haven’t started a process where we don’t know where it’s going. ... So it is significant that he’s willing to actually put a shell, a neutral shell, on the floor and have the process work itself out,” Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeFlake: Republican Party ‘is a frog slowly boiling in water’ Tim Scott: Stop giving court picks with 'questionable track records on race' a Senate vote Flake stands firm on sending a ‘message to the White House’ on Mueller MORE (R-Ariz.) told reporters this week.

The open-ended debate, which senators predicted could drag on for more than a week, will pit proposals against one another. Only those that gain the support of 60 senators will become a part of the base bill.

The only way a bill will get out of the Senate is if the final product also meets that 60-vote threshold.

And it’s not clear how long the debate will go on.

Competing factions are scrambling to lock down their amendments as both parties strategize about what measures to put forward and when.

Durbin and Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerPush to pay congressional interns an hour gains traction with progressives House approves two-week spending measure to avert shutdown Manchin’s likely senior role on key energy panel rankles progressives MORE (D-N.Y.) are discussing strategy for the Democratic caucus but haven’t made any decisions.

“We have to do something that hasn’t been done around here for a year and a half or more — we have to talk about floor tactics,” Durbin said.

Durbin initially signaled last week that he and Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamCongress digs in for prolonged Saudi battle Focus on Yemen, not the Saudi crown prince GOP tensions running high on criminal justice bill MORE (R-S.C.) could put their “Gang of Six” bill up for a vote even though President TrumpDonald John TrumpCorsi sues Mueller for alleged leaks and illegal surveillance Comey: Trump 'certainly close' to being unindicted co-conspirator Trump pushes back on reports that Ayers was first pick for chief of staff MORE panned the proposal.

But he later hedged, saying he wanted to wait to see what comes out of the Common Sense Coalition.

This group of more than 20 senators, led by Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsSenators want assurances from attorney general pick on fate of Mueller probe 5 themes to watch for in 2020 fight for House Judd Gregg: The last woman standing MORE (R-Maine), has begun drafting legislative text. But it still hasn’t reached a consensus about what it could support.

“I think we’re getting pretty close on coming up with a proposal that may or may not be offered next week,” Collins told reporters after the group’s last closed-door session. “There will probably be more than one [amendment offered] but it’s too early to tell right now.”

Senators in the group have focused on a narrower solution that would break from the “four pillars” strategy that Trump and a bipartisan group of lawmakers initially agreed to.

The pillars consisted of a fix for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, a border security package, and changes to family-based immigration and the diversity visa lottery, which provides visas to immigrants from countries with historically low immigration levels.

Members haven’t ruled out trying to broaden their proposals, but warn that the more they try to tack on the harder it could be to get a bill that can pass the Senate.

“If we can stay focused on those two, I think we can get to 60. The challenge is there are lots of other problems that both the White House and other members want to do,” said Sen. Christopher CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsFocus on Yemen, not the Saudi crown prince Overnight Defense: Washington bids farewell to George H.W. Bush | Senators offer resolution calling Saudi prince 'complicit' in Khashoggi killing | US Navy sails near Russia-claimed waters Brady amends his tax package to help nonprofits MORE (D-Del.), a member of the group.

Senators remain divided over the fate of the parents of “Dreamers,” or those undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children.

Many GOP lawmakers are wary of granting protected status for people who entered the country illegally, which could give them an advantage over immigrants who entered the United States at the same time.

Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioDems have new moniker for Trump: ‘Unindicted co-conspirator' John Kelly’s exit raises concerns about White House future Rubio: We don’t need direct evidence crown prince ‘ordered the code red’ on Khashoggi killing MORE (R-Fla.), who was involved with the 2013 “Gang of Eight” bill, predicted a bill that was “silent” on the fate of the parents would be the most likely to ultimately pass.

“I think a lot of people are learning that immigration is complicated,” he said.

Two other issues are what to do about the visa lottery system and how to counterbalance giving DACA recipients a path to citizenship.

Flake, who is a member of the Collins group, said he is working on his own proposal that would address each of the four pillars.

He says he would borrow from the Gang of Six bill as well as a measure from GOP Sens. James LankfordJames Paul LankfordNRCC breach exposes gaps 2 years after Russia hacks Hillicon Valley: Huawei executive facing possible US fraud charges | Dem blames White House for failure of election security bill | FCC investigating wireless carriers over coverage data | Assange rejects deal to leave embassy Warner blames White House for election security bill not passing Congress MORE (Okla.) and Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisGOP tensions running high on criminal justice bill Trump tells McConnell to let Senate vote on criminal justice reform Overnight Energy: Senate confirms controversial energy pick | EPA plans rollback of Obama coal emissions rule | GOP donor gave Pruitt K for legal defense MORE (N.C.) that was pitched last year as a “conservative DREAM Act.”

A group of GOP senators are expected to introduce legislation that mirrors Trump’s framework on Monday. It would give 1.8 million Dreamers a path to citizenship in exchange for tens of billions in funding for the U.S.-Mexico border wall and changes to legal immigration.

"Our proposal is supported by the President, who’s come a long way to reach a compromise. This is the only Senate proposal that has any chance of passing the House and being signed into law," Sen. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyOvernight Health Care: House set to vote on bill targeting drug companies for overcharging Medicaid | Dems press Trump officials on pre-existing conditions | Tobacco giant invests .8B in Canadian marijuana grower House set to vote on bill cracking down on drug companies overcharging Medicaid Trump tells McConnell to let Senate vote on criminal justice reform MORE (R-Iowa), one of seven Republican senators introducing the measure, said in a statement on Sunday night.

Many Republicans are wary of moving forward with a bill that the president hasn’t specifically said he will support, with immigration considered a political lightning rod with the party’s base.

Trump tried to blame Democrats over the weekend for the the inability to get a DACA deal, saying they would rather "use it as a campaign issue."

"Republicans want to fix DACA far more than the Democrats do. The Dems had all three branches of government back in 2008-2011, and they decided not to do anything about DACA. They only want to use it as a campaign issue. Vote Republican!" Trump said in a tweet.

Despite the flurry of behind-closed-doors activity, there’s no sign of a deal that could win over the Senate — much less the more conservative House or Trump — by the March 5 deadline.

And multiple senators warned that the debate, which is supposed to be focused on “phase one,” could spill into a larger discussion that includes penalizing cities that don’t comply with federal immigration law, employment-based investor visas and the larger population of roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants. 

Meanwhile, despite pressure from House Democrats, Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanJohn Kelly’s exit raises concerns about White House future Election hacking will come to a ‘breaking point,’ says Dem strategist Webb: GOP must play prevent defense MORE (R-Wis.) has remained adamant that he will only bring up a bill that is supported by Trump, who has shot down back-to-back bipartisan proposals in the Senate.

GOP senators are split on whether passage of a bill by the Senate would help matters with Trump and the House. A 2013 comprehensive immigration bill passed the Senate only to die in the House without ever receiving a vote.

“We could vote on it 90-10 in the Senate and the House still — this notion that the House is going to listen to what a senator tells them to do is not real,” Rubio said.

Despite the looming hurdles, and no signs of a solution, some are optimistic the chamber will be able to reach a consensus. But other lawmakers are quietly working on a backup plan of punting the issue for two to three years.

Flake is working on a “failsafe” that would pair a three-year extension of DACA with border security funding.

The Trump administration announced it was ending the Obama-era immigration program, which allows immigrants brought into the country illegally as children to work and go to school. Congress has until March 5 to pass a fix or risk the deportation of hundreds of thousands of immigrants.

White House chief of staff John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE warned that Trump will not extend the deadline, noting the administration is unsure if he even has the legal authority to do so. He also warned lawmakers against moving back the deadline, but noted that it was up to Trump to accept years-long stopgap legislation.

Graham said he hopes Congress can pull a “white rabbit out of its hat” but predicted that the most likely outcome is kicking the fight down the road.

“If I were betting man … I’d always bet on Congress to punt,” he said. “I just hope we don’t punt on first down. I hope we at least go to fourth down before we punt.”