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 McConnellBiden's bipartisan deal faces Senate gauntlet The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden sets new vaccine mandate as COVID-19 cases surge Democrats warn shrinking Biden's spending plan could backfire 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 CornynBiden's bipartisan deal faces Senate gauntlet Senate votes to take up infrastructure deal Biden officials pledge to confront cybersecurity challenges head-on MORE (R-Texas), McConnell’s top deputy.

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Sen. Dick DurbinDick DurbinCongress should butt out of Supreme Court's business Inmates grapple with uncertainty over Biden prison plan Democrats warn shrinking Biden's spending plan could backfire 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 FlakeBiden nominates former Sen. Tom Udall as New Zealand ambassador Biden to nominate Jane Hartley as UK ambassador: report The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Goldman Sachs - Voting rights will be on '22, '24 ballots 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 SchumerChuck SchumerSenate infrastructure talks spill over into rare Sunday session Senate holds sleepy Saturday session as negotiators finalize infrastructure deal An August ultimatum: No recess until redistricting reform is done 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 GrahamGraham, Cuellar press Biden to name border czar Trump takes two punches from GOP The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - US gymnast wins all-around gold as Simone Biles cheers from the stands MORE (R-S.C.) could put their “Gang of Six” bill up for a vote even though President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump PACs brought in over M for the first half of 2021 Chicago owes Trump M tax refund, state's attorney mounts legal challenge Biden hits resistance from unions on vaccine requirement 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 CollinsSunday shows preview: Delta concerns prompt CDC mask update; bipartisan infrastructure bill to face challenges in Senate Top Democrat: 'A lot of spin' coming from White House on infrastructure Bill would honor Ginsburg, O'Connor with statues at Capitol 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 CoonsChris Andrew CoonsBottom line Kavanaugh conspiracy? Demands to reopen investigation ignore both facts and the law Key Biden ally OK with dropping transit from infrastructure package 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 RubioSenate holds sleepy Saturday session as negotiators finalize infrastructure deal Break glass in case of emergency — but not for climate change Democrats join GOP in pressuring Biden over China, virus origins 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 LankfordAbbott slams Ben & Jerry's for Palestine support: 'Disgraceful' Democrat stalls Biden's border nominee Republican calls on Oklahoma to ban Ben & Jerry's MORE (Okla.) and Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisBiden's bipartisan deal faces Senate gauntlet The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - US gymnast wins all-around gold as Simone Biles cheers from the stands GOP senator credits Sinema for infrastructure deal 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 GrassleyChuck GrassleyBiden's bipartisan deal faces Senate gauntlet The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - US gymnast wins all-around gold as Simone Biles cheers from the stands The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - A huge win for Biden, centrist senators 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 RyanRealClearPolitics reporter says Freedom Caucus shows how much GOP changed under Trump Juan Williams: Biden's child tax credit is a game-changer Trump clash ahead: Ron DeSantis positions himself as GOP's future in a direct-mail piece 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.”