Immigration fight down to the wire

Immigration fight down to the wire
© Greg Nash - Getty Images

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 FlakeArpaio considering running for former sheriff job after Trump pardon Overnight Energy: Warren edges past Sanders in poll of climate-focused voters | Carbon tax shows new signs of life | Greens fuming at Trump plans for development at Bears Ears monument Carbon tax shows new signs of life in Congress MORE (R-Ariz) called "tidying up the language."

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The clock is ticking.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellAre Democrats turning Trump-like? House Democrat calls for gun control: Cities can ban plastic straws but 'we can't ban assault weapons?' Churches are arming and training congregants in response to mass shootings: report 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 CollinsCook Political Report moves Susan Collins Senate race to 'toss up' The Hill's Morning Report — Trump and the new Israel-'squad' controversy Trump crosses new line with Omar, Tlaib, Israel move 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 TrumpTrump watching 'very closely' as Portland braces for dueling protests WaPo calls Trump admin 'another threat' to endangered species Are Democrats turning Trump-like? 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 GrassleyGOP senators call for Barr to release full results of Epstein investigation Trump health official: Controversial drug pricing move is 'top priority' Environmental advocates should take another look at biofuels 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 TillisThe United States broken patent system is getting worse Gun reform groups to pressure GOP senators with rallies in all 50 states To cash in on innovation, remove market barriers for advanced energy technologies 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 GoodlatteImmigrant advocacy groups shouldn't be opposing Trump's raids Top Republican releases full transcript of Bruce Ohr interview It’s time for Congress to pass an anti-cruelty statute 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 RyanEmbattled Juul seeks allies in Washington Ex-Parkland students criticize Kellyanne Conway Latina leaders: 'It's a women's world more than anything' 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) ManchinTrump vows to 'always uphold the Second Amendment' amid ongoing talks on gun laws White House eyes September action plan for gun proposals Trump phoned Democratic senator to talk gun control 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 GrahamGraham warns Trump on Taliban deal in Afghanistan: Learn from 'Obama's mistakes' Appropriators warn White House against clawing back foreign aid Trump meets with national security team on Afghanistan peace plan MORE (R-S.C.), asked why the bipartisan group’s bill could pass.

Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioTrump moves forward with F-16 sale to Taiwan opposed by China The Hill's Morning Report — Trump and the new Israel-'squad' controversy Trump crosses new line with Omar, Tlaib, Israel move MORE (R-Fla.) said the Grassley bill should be the first vote. Sen. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderThe Hill's Morning Report - How will Trump be received in Dayton and El Paso? McConnell faces pressure to bring Senate back for gun legislation Criminal justice reform should extend to student financial aid MORE (R-Tenn.) echoed that stance, saying the “sooner the better.”

But Sen. John CornynJohn CornynThe Hill's Campaign Report: Battle for Senate begins to take shape The Hill's Morning Report — Trump and the new Israel-'squad' controversy O'Rourke says he will not 'in any scenario' run for Senate 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.