The Senate’s main players on immigration legislation

The fate of Senate immigration reform legislation rests in the hands of a few key senators on both sides of the aisle.

The stakes are enormously high, as hundreds of thousands of immigrants who entered the country illegally as children face deportation if Congress fails to act by March 5, a deadline set by President TrumpDonald John TrumpCoast Guard chief: 'Unacceptable' that service members must rely on food pantries, donations amid shutdown Dem lawmaker apologizes after saying it's never been legal in US to force people to work for free Grassley to hold drug pricing hearing MORE.

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Proponents for giving these immigrants legal status or even a path to citizenship hope to pass a bill out of the Senate with enough political momentum to win Trump’s support and then create pressure to schedule a vote on the House floor.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBudowsky: Pelosi can break shutdown stalemate GOP seeks to change narrative in shutdown fight On The Money: Shutdown Day 32 | Senate to vote on dueling funding measures | GOP looks to change narrative | Dems press Trump on recalled workers | Kudlow predicts economy will 'snap back' after shutdown MORE (R-Ky.) has promised “a level playing field” for the Senate debate and “an amendment process that is fair to all sides,” but the outcome is far from certain.  

These lawmakers will decide what legislation — if any — attracts the 60 votes necessary.


Sen. John CornynJohn CornynGraham angers Dems by digging into Clinton, Obama controversies Trump tells GOP senators he’s sticking to Syria and Afghanistan pullout  Texas governor, top lawmakers tell Trump not to use hurricane relief funds to build border wall MORE (R-Texas)

Cornyn, the Senate Republican whip, is perhaps the most important player in the debate.

This will be the fourth time he plays a high-profile role in a major Senate immigration debate. 

He was at the center of action in 2006 and 2013, when the Senate passed comprehensive immigration reform bills that failed to get anywhere with the House. He was also a pivotal player in 2007 when a broad bipartisan plan collapsed under its own weight in the Senate.

Cornyn is the point person for the GOP leadership and has McConnell’s trust.

He will serve as a “clearing house” for various proposals, screening out ideas that can’t pass muster with Trump or the GOP-controlled House.

He has a solid grasp of policy and its practical implications as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee Border Security and Immigration Subcommittee and the senior senator of a border state with a large immigrant population.


Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinGrassley to hold drug pricing hearing Graham angers Dems by digging into Clinton, Obama controversies Blagojevich's wife 'speechless' that officer's sentence less than half of husband's MORE (D-Ill.)

Durbin will serve as the clearing house for proposals on the Democratic side.

He is the senior Democrat on the border security and immigration subcommittee and played a central role in negotiating the comprehensive immigration reform bill that passed the Senate in 2013. Durbin introduced the first Dream Act, which gave young immigrants permanent resident status if they met certain requirements, in 2001.

Durbin, the minority whip, has regularly highlighted the life stories of young people who came to the country illegally as children and have excelled academically and professionally, earning the trust of colleagues, as well as those facing deportation.

Durbin says he wants any immigration deal to grant “Dreamers” a path to citizenship, something that Trump and most Republicans say needs to be balanced with immigration reforms, such as limiting green cards to the nuclear family members of citizens and eliminating the diversity visa lottery program.

Durbin will help decide which of the proposed GOP reforms are acceptable concessions in return for protecting Dreamers.


Sen. Tom CottonThomas (Tom) Bryant CottonOn The Money: Shutdown Day 26 | Pelosi calls on Trump to delay State of the Union | Cites 'security concerns' | DHS chief says they can handle security | Waters lays out agenda | Senate rejects effort to block Trump on Russia sanctions Senate rejects effort to block Trump on Russia sanctions Overnight Defense: Trump faces blowback over report he discussed leaving NATO | Pentagon extends mission on border | Senate advances measure bucking Trump on Russia sanctions MORE (R-Ark.)

Cotton is the voice of conservatives who want to bolster the enforcement of immigration law — which critics on the right say has become overly lax — and decrease legal immigration quotas.

Cotton wants to establish a skills-based point system similar to what is used in Canada to replace the current employment visa system. He also wants to give the spouses and minor children of citizens and legal permanent residents preference for green cards and eliminate the diversity visa lottery program — two key points in Trump’s four-point immigration plan.

Senate Democratic Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerCongress: Americans in Puerto Rico still need our help Airbnb is doing the Democrats' dirty work Protecting our judiciary must be a priority in the 116th Congress MORE (N.Y.) has told his Democratic colleagues that he thinks Trump wants to cut a deal on immigration but worries that the president might shrink in the face of opposition from the GOP’s conservative base.

In this debate, Cotton represents that base.


Sens. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeSchumer recruiting top-notch candidate for McCain Senate seat The Hill's Morning Report — Trump eyes wall money options as shutdown hits 21 days Poll: Sanders most popular senator, Flake least MORE (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGraham angers Dems by digging into Clinton, Obama controversies Barr’s first task as AG: Look at former FBI leaders’ conduct Debate builds over making Mueller report public MORE (R-S.C.)

Flake and Graham are two veterans of the Gang of Eight that authored the last comprehensive immigration reform bill to pass the Senate in 2013.

They are members of the Judiciary Committee and solidly in favor of giving legal status, preferably a path to citizenship, to Dreamers.

Flake has argued to McConnell in meetings that if the Senate passes legislation, Trump can be persuaded to support it. If the Senate leads, Flake claims, the White House will follow.

McConnell, however, has been leery of getting out ahead of the president, worried that members of his conference could wind up voting for controversial legislation that gets slapped down by Trump and then becomes a political liability in future GOP primaries.

Flake and Graham supported a bipartisan framework that created a path to citizenship for people who qualified for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that Trump rescinded in September and allocated $2.7 billion for border security.

They are expected to vote with most Democrats on a proposal to protect Dreamers.


Sens. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisGraham angers Dems by digging into Clinton, Obama controversies Centrist efforts to convince Trump to end shutdown falter GOP reasserts NATO support after report on Trump’s wavering MORE (R-N.C.), James LankfordJames Paul LankfordThis week: Congress heading in opposite directions on shutdown plans Senate GOP eyes 'nuclear option' for Trump nominees GOP senator calls Trump immigration offer a 'straw man proposal' not meant to become law MORE (R-Okla.) and David Perdue (R-Ga.)

This trio represents the mainstream Senate Republican sentiment on immigration reform.

Together with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyGrassley to hold drug pricing hearing Overnight Health Care: HHS chief refuses to testify on family separations | Grassley to test GOP on lowering drug prices | PhRMA spends record on lobbying in 2018 Congress should stop tariff power grab, bring balance to US trade policy MORE (R-Iowa), they have co-sponsored the Secure and Succeed Act of 2018, which puts in legislative text Trump’s four-point immigration reform proposal.

They favor a 12-year path to citizenship for immigrants who meet the requirements of DACA.

They want $25 billion to secure the U.S.-Mexico border and increased authority for border enforcement agents, such as the ability to retain custody of illegal border crossers instead of releasing them on their own recognizance.

So far, Tillis, Lankford and Perdue have steadfastly insisted that granting Dreamers a path to citizenship must be matched with ending the immigration preference given to non-nuclear family members of citizens and permanent legal residents.

They have stayed equally adamant about eliminating the diversity visa lottery program.

Winning support from a majority of the Senate GOP conference for an immigration deal will require getting these three senators on board. 


Sens. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsGOP seeks to change narrative in shutdown fight Trump pitches new plan to reopen government amid Dem pushback The Memo: Concern over shutdown grows in Trump World MORE (R-Maine) and Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinGOP seeks to change narrative in shutdown fight Senate to vote on dueling government funding bills This week: Congress heading in opposite directions on shutdown plans MORE (D-W.Va.)

Collins and Manchin represent the Senate’s political center and have hosted regular meetings of moderates to find common ground on immigration.

Neither lawmaker had been as involved in Senate immigration negotiations as their colleagues mentioned above but they sprung into action after an impasse on the issue shut the government down for three days last month.

The goal of Collins and Manchin is to keep the conversation going and to produce a result.

Some colleagues with more experience in the issue worry that their large meetings of centrists are too unwieldy to produce results, but Flake has praised those sessions as a “safe space” to share ideas.

Whatever way the bloc of centrists swings will determine the final shape of the Senate immigration bill.

Many of the Democrats in the group face tough reelections in states won by Trump and could be tempted to accept some of the broader reforms Republicans are pushing.  


Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.)

Schumer was the leading co-author of the 2013 comprehensive reform bill and is the political mastermind of the Democratic caucus.

Durbin may have more credibility with Dreamers because he has worked more closely with their community over the years. Yet, it is Schumer who will have the ultimate say on whether Democrats strike a deal with Republicans.

A lot will depend on how much ground Republicans are willing to give. If they insist on limiting the weight of family relationships in granting green cards, Schumer will have to decide whether to accept a compromise or to take the issue to voters in 2018 and 2020.