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McConnell keeps firm grip on immigration debate

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellMnuchin says he learned of Pelosi's letter to him about stimulus talks 'in the press' On The Money: Trump makes a late pitch on the economy | US economy records record GDP gains after historic COVID-19 drop | Pelosi eyes big COVID-19 deal in lame duck Lawmakers say infrastructure efforts are falling victim to deepening partisan divide MORE (R-Ky.), who promised what was expected to be a free-for-all immigration debate, is keeping his hand firmly on the wheel. 

The Senate is indeed tackling immigration, but McConnell on Tuesday indicated the debate will conclude at the end of this week. So unless there is a bipartisan breakthrough over the next 48-72 hours on an issue Congress has tried to resolve for more than a decade, immigration reform will once again fall short. 

By limiting the debate to a few days and expressing his preference for a GOP proposal that mirrors President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden campaign slams Facebook after thousands of ads blocked by platform's pre-election blackout Mnuchin says he learned of Pelosi's letter to him about stimulus talks 'in the press' Harris to travel to Texas Friday after polls show tie between Trump, Biden MORE’s four-point immigration plan — which doesn’t have the votes to pass — McConnell has significantly influenced the process in the upper chamber. 

He’s also signaled to Democrats that the price for debating immigration will be tough votes for their vulnerable incumbents on issues such as sanctuary cities.

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On Tuesday, the Kentucky Republican proposed a vote on a measure to reduce federal aid to cities that do not cooperate in enforcing federal immigration law but was quickly rebutted by Senate Democratic Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerHouse Democrats introduce bill to invest 0 billion in STEM research and education Graham dismisses criticism from Fox Business's Lou Dobbs Lewandowski: Trump 'wants to see every Republican reelected regardless of ... if they break with the president' MORE (N.Y.), who objected.

 

McConnell is siding with Republicans who argue that anything falling short of Trump’s plan has a slim chance of becoming law.

By doing that, McConnell is opting not to box in Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanMcCarthy faces pushback from anxious Republicans over interview comments Pelosi and Trump go a full year without speaking Jordan vows to back McCarthy as leader even if House loses more GOP seats MORE (R-Wis.). Democrats and some Republicans maintain a clean “Dreamer” bill would pass the House if Ryan allowed for such a vote. While the Senate won’t approve that bill, the chamber could feasibly pass a bipartisan compromise. Such a measure would likely attract broad criticism from conservatives in the House, which didn’t act on a Senate-passed immigration bill in 2013.

Ryan, who would face heat from Republicans in swing districts to act on a Senate-cleared measure, has been warned not to act on any bill conservatives consider “amnesty.” 

McConnell backs a proposal sponsored by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyBarrett confirmation stokes Democrats' fears over ObamaCare On The Money: Power players play chess match on COVID-19 aid | Pelosi bullish, Trump tempers optimism | Analysis: Nearly 1M have run out of jobless benefits Grassley: Voters should be skeptical of Biden's pledge to not raise middle class taxes MORE (R-Iowa), Sen. Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonCotton mocks NY Times over claim of nonpartisanship, promises to submit op-eds as test Barrett fight puts focus on abortion in 2020 election COVID outbreak threatens GOP's Supreme Court plans MORE (R-Ark.) and several other Republicans that would codify Trump’s call to limit the weight of family relationships in granting green cards and overhaul the diversity visa lottery program.

“I believe it deserves [the] support of every senator who’s ready to move beyond making points and actually making a law,” McConnell said on the Senate floor.

GOP lawmakers say McConnell’s support for the Secure and Succeed Act will have an impact on the debate.

“Anytime you have the majority leader’s support, that helps the legislation,” said Cotton. “It shows positive momentum that we’re adding Republican senators as sponsors and especially the majority leader.”

McConnell, who could face both a competitive primary and general election opponent in 2020, is putting pressure on Democrats to vote for the Grassley–Cotton bill by limiting the debate to this week.

It does not appear any Democratic-favored proposals have the necessary 60 votes to advance. The GOP leader is betting that Democrats are willing to give ground because they have pushed for months to have a floor vote on legislation to replace the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

McConnell told reporters that if Congress does not pass a bill by the Presidents Day recess, which begins Saturday, the chamber will move on to other issues.

“We have other things to do,” he told reporters after a Republican policy lunch Tuesday.

“This is an issue we’ve been talking about literally for years,” he added, noting that GOP negotiators have recently “spent three months talking to the Democrats about this.”

This has left some Democrats to wonder if McConnell is pushing his thumb on the scale a little too hard by expressing a clear preference for one bill and limiting the floor debate to only a few days.

“Do you think he wants to get a result?” asked one Democratic lawmaker. “That doesn’t sound like an open process.”

A senior Democratic aide said, “How freewheeling it is is an unanswered question,” referring to the floor debate.

When addressing immigration last week, McConnell said “anyone who gets to 60 [votes] wins.”

McConnell on Tuesday pushed back against suggestions that he’s controlling the Senate debate behind the scenes.

He said his promise of a free and fair debate doesn’t give Democrats carte blanche to dictate the terms of what passes.

“I’m not trying to dictate to them what they offer. They shouldn’t be trying to dictate to us what we offer. Let’s just get started,” he said.

He argued that the Senate should be able to find out in the next few days whether there are 60 votes for any immigration proposal. The current makeup of the Senate includes 51 Republicans and 49 senators who caucus with the Democrats.

Republican lawmakers say the dynamic has changed compared to 2013, when Senate Democrats controlled the chamber and passed a comprehensive immigration bill with unanimous Democratic support and 14 Republicans.

Democrats such as Senate Minority Whip Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinDemocrats warn GOP will regret Barrett confirmation Democrats brace for nail-biting finish to Senate battle Democratic Senate emerges as possible hurdle for progressives  MORE (Ill.), a leading voice on the fate of “Dreamers,” or immigrants who came to the country as children, hope they can get 11 Republicans to back a proposal that has the unanimous support of their caucus.

Democrats note that 11 of the 14 Republicans who voted for comprehensive immigration reform in 2013 are still in the chamber, the perfect number to get a plan with majority Democratic support over the 60-vote hurdle to end a filibuster.

But members of McConnell’s leadership team are dousing the prospects of that happening. 

“Sen. Durbin was quoted this morning saying his goal was to get all Democrats and 11 Republicans to vote for a bill in the Senate, but I would just point out that is not a pathway to success,” said Senate Republican Whip John CornynJohn CornynGOP sees path to hold Senate majority Cook moves Texas to 'toss-up' Biden pushes into Trump territory MORE (Texas).

“That says nothing about what happens in the House and that says nothing about the necessity of a presidential signature,” he added.

The movement of the Senate’s political center toward Trump’s position in recent days was reflected by a proposal unveiled Monday by Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeTrump fights for battleground Arizona Flake cuts ad for Biden: 'Character' matters What a Biden administration should look like MORE (R-Ariz.), who co-authored a bipartisan proposal with Durbin last year to protect Dreamers from deportation.

Flake joined Sens. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Election night could be a bit messy The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Trump, Biden blitz battleground states Late donor surges push election spending projections to new heights MORE (R-S.C.) and Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerDemocrats brace for nail-biting finish to Senate battle Trump expressed doubt to donors GOP can hold Senate: report The Hill's Campaign Report: 2020 spending wars | Biden looks to clean up oil comments | Debate ratings are in MORE (R-Colo.) and three Democrats last year to support a bipartisan immigration framework that created a 10- to 12-year pathway to citizenship for Dreamers and set aside $2.7 billion to strengthen the border.

Flake’s newest proposal would allocate $25 billion for a border trust fund, limiting the maximum amount available for border improvements per year to $1.8 billion

It would limit family-based immigrant visas to spouses and children, and reallocate visas to alleviate the family-sponsored immigrant backlog. It would also eliminate visa caps for specific countries.

The plan, however, didn’t win any praise from Schumer, who pointed out Tuesday afternoon that it didn’t have any Democratic co-sponsors.