McConnell keeps firm grip on immigration debate

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellMcConnell challenger faces tougher path after rocky launch Funding a strong defense of our nation's democratic process can't wait The Hill's Morning Report: Trump walks back from 'send her back' chants 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 TrumpUS-Saudi Arabia policy needs a dose of 'realpolitik' Trump talks to Swedish leader about rapper A$AP Rocky, offers to vouch for his bail Matt Gaetz ahead of Mueller hearing: 'We are going to reelect the president' 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 SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerTop Democrats demand security assessment of Trump properties Lawmakers pay tribute to late Justice Stevens Trump administration denies temporary immigrant status to Venezuelans in US 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 RyanTrump quietly rolled back programs to detect, combat weapons of mass destruction: report Ocasio-Cortez top aide emerges as lightning rod amid Democratic feud Juan Williams: GOP in a panic over Mueller 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 GrassleyScandal in Puerto Rico threatens chance at statehood Poll: McConnell is most unpopular senator Democrat: Treasury 'acknowledged the unprecedented process' in Trump tax return rejection MORE (R-Iowa), Sen. Tom CottonThomas (Tom) Bryant CottonLawmakers introduce bill to block U.S. companies from doing business with Huawei Five things to know about Iran's breaches of the nuclear deal Hillicon Valley: Trump gets pushback after reversing course on Huawei | China installing surveillance apps on visitors' phones | Internet provider Cloudflare suffers outage | Consumer groups look to stop Facebook cryptocurrency 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 pledge to fight Trump detention policy during trip to border Dems open to killing filibuster in next Congress Democrats warm to idea of studying reparations 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 wants commitment that Trump will sign budget deal Hillicon Valley: Trump seeks review of Pentagon cloud-computing contract | FTC weighs updating kids' internet privacy rules | Schumer calls for FaceApp probe | Report says states need more money to secure elections Senators introduce legislation to boost cyber defense training in high school 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 FlakeFlake urges Republicans to condemn 'vile and offensive' Trump tweets Flake responds to Trump, Jimmy Carter barbs: 'We need to stop trying to disqualify each other' Jeff Flake responds to Trump's 'greener pastures' dig on former GOP lawmakers MORE (R-Ariz.), who co-authored a bipartisan proposal with Durbin last year to protect Dreamers from deportation.

Flake joined Sens. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamUS-Saudi Arabia policy needs a dose of 'realpolitik' Media cried wolf: Calling every Republican a racist lost its bite Rubio criticizes reporters, Democrat for racism accusations against McCain MORE (R-S.C.) and Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerTrump angry more Republicans haven't defended his tweets: report The Hill's Morning Report - A raucous debate on race ends with Trump admonishment Republicans scramble to contain Trump fallout 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.