Immigration fight down to the wire

Immigration fight down to the wire
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Senators are struggling to break through a legislative stalemate on immigration, with centrists making a frantic push to find a deal that can win enough support to pass by the end of the week.

The centrist senators on Wednesday said that they had finished the contours of an agreement that would protect “Dreamers” in exchange for more spending on border security.

But in a sign of just how harried the push has become, the official language of the agreement wasn't revealed until late Wednesday night after hours of what Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeCheney clashes with Trump Sessions-Tuberville Senate runoff heats up in Alabama GOP lawmakers stick to Trump amid new criticism MORE (R-Ariz) called "tidying up the language."

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The clock is ticking.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellFormer HUD Secretary: Congress 'should invest 0B in direct rental assistance' OVERNIGHT ENERGY: House approves .5T green infrastructure plan | Rubio looks to defense bill to block offshore drilling, but some fear it creates a loophole | DC-area lawmakers push for analysis before federal agencies can be relocated House approves .5T green infrastructure plan MORE (R-Ky.) has made clear that he intends to move on from the immigration debate after this week, leaving little time for any faction to cobble together 60 votes for an immigration bill.

The centrists appear to have the highest odds of success.

If every Democrat supported the group’s proposal — which is not guaranteed — the centrists would need the votes of 11 GOP senators for a bill to pass. Roughly a dozen Republicans have been taking part in the Common Sense Coalition talks.

“Our group from the very beginning has been committed to coming up with a bipartisan plan on immigration and that’s what it appears we’ve been able to do,” Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsThe Hill's Coronavirus Report: Stagwell President Mark Penn says Trump is losing on fighting the virus; Fauci says U.S. 'going in the wrong direction' in fight against virus GOP senators debate replacing Columbus Day with Juneteenth as a federal holiday Senate passes extension of application deadline for PPP small-business loans MORE (R-Maine), who has been leading the talks, told reporters as she headed to a meeting in McConnell’s office.

The centrist plan, unveiled Wednesday by a group of 16 bipartisan senators, would protect 1.8 million Dreamers from deportation and provide $25 billion for border security. While it would prevent Dreamers from sponsoring a parent who knowingly brought them into the country illegally, it does not include the broader changes to legal immigration or interior enforcement favored by President TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse panel approves 0.5B defense policy bill House panel votes against curtailing Insurrection Act powers after heated debate House panel votes to constrain Afghan drawdown, ask for assessment on 'incentives' to attack US troops MORE and House Republicans.

Collins wouldn’t say whether the proposal has 60 votes, nor would Flake.

“This bipartisan bill we’ve been working on I think can get 60. I’m not sure it will. It kind of depends on the order they come up, too,” Flake said.

The centrist plan is certain to face strong opposition from parts of the Republican conference, not to mention the House and Trump.

The White House has demanded that any immigration legislation include the “four pillars” that negotiators agreed to in January: A fix for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program for immigrants who came to the U.S. as children, border security funding, and changes to family-based immigration and the State Department’s diversity visa lottery.

Undercutting the centrists, Trump on Wednesday threw his weight behind a rival immigration measure spearheaded by Sen. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyUS, Mexico set for new post-NAFTA trade era Senators press IRS chief on stimulus check pitfalls GOP skeptical of polling on Trump MORE (R-Iowa), the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, which tracks closely with the White House’s plan.

“I am asking all senators, in both parties, to support the Grassley bill and to oppose any legislation that fails to fulfill these four pillars — that includes opposing any short-term ‘Band-Aid’ approach,” Trump said in a statement.

Grassley’s bill would include a path to citizenship for 1.8 million immigrants brought into the country illegally as children, $25 billion in border security, tougher interior enforcement and new limits on legal immigration.

Immigration is a political lightning rod with the Republican base, and many GOP lawmakers are wary of opening themselves up to criticism by backing a bill that Trump doesn’t support.

“If it doesn’t have a reasonable treatment for each of the pillars, I couldn’t support it,” said Sen. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisPoll: Biden, Trump locked in neck-and-neck battle for North Carolina GOP senator: Russia should be labeled state sponsor of terrorism if intelligence is accurate Trump faces bipartisan calls for answers on Russian-offered bounties MORE (R-N.C.).

Meanwhile, in the House, Republican leaders on Wednesday announced they would formally begin whipping support for an immigration bill from Rep. Bob GoodlatteRobert (Bob) William GoodlatteUSCIS chief Cuccinelli blames Paul Ryan for immigration inaction Immigrant advocacy groups shouldn't be opposing Trump's raids Top Republican releases full transcript of Bruce Ohr interview MORE (R-Va.) that contains many conservative priorities.

“What we always want to do in the House is have a House Republican position, which we can start from for negotiations,” Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanBush, Romney won't support Trump reelection: NYT Twitter joins Democrats to boost mail-in voting — here's why Lobbying world MORE (R-Wis.).

Back in the Senate, the success or failure of immigration legislation could hinge on what comes up for a vote and when.

Leadership could try to jam senators by forcing them to choose between either passing the Grassley measure or doing nothing on DACA.

But Democrats, and some Republicans, want Trump’s framework to be one of the first votes.

The legislation isn’t expected to get 60 votes, though Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinManchin draws line against repealing legislative filibuster Steyer endorses Markey in Massachusetts Senate primary The Hill's Morning Report - COVID-19 alarms escalate; Trump under fire over Russia MORE (D-W.Va.), up for reelection in 2018, has signaled he could support it.

A failed vote on the Trump proposal could help build support for alternatives, some senators say.

“You need to ask me that after the Grassley bill falls short of 60, but the president deserves a vote. ... I think the Senate doesn’t want to be seen as failing, but time will tell,” said Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamThe Hill's Campaign Report: The political heavyweights in Tuesday's primary fights Harrison goes on the attack against Graham in new South Carolina Senate ad Overnight Defense: Lawmakers demand answers on reported Russian bounties for US troops deaths in Afghanistan | Defense bill amendments target Germany withdrawal, Pentagon program giving weapons to police MORE (R-S.C.), asked why the bipartisan group’s bill could pass.

Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioJennifer Aniston urges fans to 'wear a damn mask:' 'It really shouldn't be a debate' OVERNIGHT ENERGY: House approves .5T green infrastructure plan | Rubio looks to defense bill to block offshore drilling, but some fear it creates a loophole | DC-area lawmakers push for analysis before federal agencies can be relocated The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Stagwell President Mark Penn says Trump is losing on fighting the virus; Fauci says U.S. 'going in the wrong direction' in fight against virus MORE (R-Fla.) said the Grassley bill should be the first vote. Sen. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderDoug Jones cuts pro-mask campaign ad: 'Our health depends on each other' Trump says he's 'all for masks' despite reluctance to wear one The Hill's 12:30 Report: Democratic proposal to extend 0 unemployment checks MORE (R-Tenn.) echoed that stance, saying the “sooner the better.”

But Sen. John CornynJohn CornynGOP senators debate replacing Columbus Day with Juneteenth as a federal holiday New legislation required to secure US semiconductor leadership GOP skeptical of polling on Trump MORE (Texas), the No. 2 Senate Republican, said the Grassley measure would be the last proposal to get a vote, not the first, raising the possibility of a take-it-or-leave-it proposition.

Grassley lashed out at Democrats for opposing his bill, saying they should support it after clamoring for months for a DACA fix. They could, he said, ultimately try to amend the framework before a procedural hurdle where it would again need 60 votes.

“Aren’t you at a point where here the Democrats have been pleading for months and months and months for justice. ... Why would they turn it down?” asked Grassley, who appeared visibly frustrated and at times yelled at reporters.

When a reporter noted that there wasn’t unanimous Republican support for the plan, he added: “There’s some Republicans that don’t want to do anything on immigration.”

Senators have been divided for weeks over whether they should pass a bill that couldn’t get a majority in the House, where Ryan says he will only bring up a bill Trump supports.

“It’s got the best chance of getting through the House of Representatives, and it’s the only one that you hear talked about that the president will sign,” Grassley added.

But supporters of the bipartisan measures counter that senators need to focus on what can pass their own chamber before worrying about the House GOP or Trump — who has sent mixed signals about his determination to help the Dreamers.

“We obviously care about the House and about the president’s position, but we’re the Senate. We have to get through this phase of the legislative process first,” said Collins.

Flake added: “We’re a separate branch. He can veto it or he can sign it. But we’ve got to pass it.”

McConnell teed up procedural votes on four proposals Wednesday evening: the Grassley bill, a separate plan from Sens. Christopher Coons (D-Del.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), a proposal from Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) that would crack down on sanctuary cities, and a placeholder for the Collins proposal.

The move came after he had Republicans sign four blank cloture petitions during Tuesday’s conference lunch, which allows him to force votes on amendments if Democrats continue to stymie him. 

That will eat up days of time since, under Senate rules, they would need to have an “intervening day” before an initial vote. Senators could get a deal to speed up the debate, though the Senate adjourned on Wednesday night without scheduling any votes for Thursday

How the debate ends up playing out on the floor is anyone’s guess. Republicans say the ball is in the court of the Democrats, who have twice blocked McConnell from scheduling votes.

“We’ve got the hall. We’ve got the people, but we can’t make them debate,” Cornyn said. “I’m just sort of at a loss.”

Updated on Feb. 15 at 8:41 a.m.