McConnell keeps firm grip on immigration debate

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBill Kristol resurfaces video of Pence calling Obama executive action on immigration a 'profound mistake' Winners and losers in the border security deal House passes border deal, setting up Trump to declare emergency 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 TrumpBill Kristol resurfaces video of Pence calling Obama executive action on immigration a 'profound mistake' ACLU says planned national emergency declaration is 'clear abuse of presidential power' O'Rourke says he'd 'absolutely' take down border wall near El Paso if he could 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.

ADVERTISEMENT

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 SchumerBill Kristol resurfaces video of Pence calling Obama executive action on immigration a 'profound mistake' House passes border deal, setting up Trump to declare emergency Christie: Trump doesn’t give nicknames to people he respects 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 RyanRubio discovers Native American heritage through TV show Feminine hygiene products to be available to House lawmakers using congressional funds Former Ryan aide moves to K street 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 GrassleySenate approves border bill that prevents shutdown Grassley raises voice after McConnell interrupts Senate speech Senate confirms Trump pick William Barr as new attorney general MORE (R-Iowa), Sen. Tom CottonThomas (Tom) Bryant CottonSenate approves border bill that prevents shutdown 'Morning Joe' host quizzes Howard Schultz on price of a box of Cheerios Huawei charges escalate Trump fight with China 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 DurbinGOP advances rules change to speed up confirmation of Trump nominees GOP leader presses Trump to agree to border deal Trump divides Democrats with warning of creeping socialism 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 braces for Trump's emergency declaration On The Money: Trump to sign border deal, declare emergency to build wall | Senate passes funding bill, House to follow | Dems promise challenge to emergency declaration Trump to sign border deal, declare national emergency 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 suggests Heller lost reelection bid because he was 'hostile' during 2016 presidential campaign Live coverage: Trump delivers State of the Union Sasse’s jabs at Trump spark talk of primary challenger MORE (R-Ariz.), who co-authored a bipartisan proposal with Durbin last year to protect Dreamers from deportation.

Flake joined Sens. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGraham seeks new Rosenstein testimony after explosive McCabe interview Senate confirms Trump pick William Barr as new attorney general Graham demands testimony from former FBI acting Director McCabe MORE (R-S.C.) and Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerBipartisan Senators reintroduce legislation to slap new sanctions on Russia Dems seeking path to Senate majority zero-in on Sun Belt Lawmakers eager for 5G breakthrough 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.