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 FlakeBiden nominates former Sen. Tom Udall as New Zealand ambassador Biden to nominate Jane Hartley as UK ambassador: report The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Goldman Sachs - Voting rights will be on '22, '24 ballots MORE (R-Ariz) called "tidying up the language."

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The clock is ticking.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOn The Money: Trump asks court to block release of tax returns to Congress | Private sector adds 330K jobs in July, well short of expectations Senate panel advances first three spending bills McConnell lays out GOP demands for government-funding deal 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 CollinsGraham's COVID-19 'breakthrough' case jolts Senate The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Senate finalizes .2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill Schumer: Democrats 'on track' to pass bipartisan deal, .5T budget 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 TrumpMajority of Americans in new poll say it would be bad for the country if Trump ran in 2024 ,800 bottle of whiskey given to Pompeo by Japan is missing Liz Cheney says her father is 'deeply troubled' about the state of the Republican Party 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 GrassleyChuck GrassleyKaine says he has votes to pass Iraq War repeal in Senate Biden's ATF nominee on shaky ground in Senate Axne endorses Finkenauer Senate bid in Iowa 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 TillisNew hurdle slows trillion infrastructure bill Seven-figure ad campaign urges GOP to support infrastructure bill Graham's COVID-19 'breakthrough' case jolts Senate 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 GoodlatteThe job of shielding journalists is not finished Bottom line No documents? Hoping for legalization? Be wary of Joe Biden 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 RyanTo cut poverty and solve the labor shortage, enhance the Earned Income Tax Credit Wisconsin GOP quietly prepares Ron Johnson backup plans RealClearPolitics reporter says Freedom Caucus shows how much GOP changed under Trump 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 ManchinJoe ManchinSenate rejects GOP effort to add Trump border wall to bipartisan infrastructure deal Youth organizations call on Biden to ensure 'bold' climate investments Democrats barrel toward August voting rights deadline 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 Graham19 House Democrats call on Capitol physician to mandate vaccines The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by AT&T - Simone wins bronze with altered beam routine The job of shielding journalists is not finished MORE (R-S.C.), asked why the bipartisan group’s bill could pass.

Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioSenators highlight national security threats from China during rare public hearing Rubio presses DNI to investigate alleged unmasking of Tucker Carlson Senate holds sleepy Saturday session as negotiators finalize infrastructure deal MORE (R-Fla.) said the Grassley bill should be the first vote. Sen. Lamar AlexanderLamar AlexanderAuthorities link ex-Tennessee governor to killing of Jimmy Hoffa associate The Republicans' deep dive into nativism Senate GOP faces retirement brain drain MORE (R-Tenn.) echoed that stance, saying the “sooner the better.”

But Sen. John CornynJohn CornynWhite House trying to beat back bipartisan Cornyn infrastructure amendment Senate GOP shifts focus to fight over Biden's .5 trillion budget McConnell warns Schumer cutting off debate quickly could stall infrastructure deal 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.