Senate pivots to stopgap ‘Dreamers’ deal
The Senate is weighing a short-term fix for “Dreamers” as lawmakers struggle to break a stalemate that has stalled the chamber’s debate.
The hunt for a fallback option comes ahead of the March 5 deadline created by President Trump’s decision to end the immigration program and amid fresh questions about what, if anything, can clear Congress and win over the White House.
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) is in talks with Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) about a plan to tie a three-year extension of protections for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients with roughly $7.6 billion in border security.
“I can promise that I’ll be back on the floor, again and again, motioning for a vote until we pass a bill providing relief for those struggling due to our inaction,” Flake said, outlining his plan.
Passing a years-long immigration stopgap is no one’s first choice for restoring protections from the Obama-era program, which the Trump administration announced it was ending last year. Democrats largely refused to touch the idea during the Senate’s debate, while GOP Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) referred to it as “Plan Z.”
But senators appeared increasingly resigned to any potential immigration legislation being a stopgap patch, rather than a permanent fix, after months of closed-door negotiations failed to produce a deal.
How long a potential stopgap agreement could last remains unclear. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) predicted Congress would only be able to punt into 2019, kicking the hot-button issue past the midterm elections.
“I think we wind up punting. I think we’ll do a one-year extension of DACA and punt,” he said.
GOP Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.), Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) have offered a bill to provide legal protections for current DACA recipients. But it could struggle to win Democratic support because it includes tens of billions in wall funding without a path to citizenship and doesn’t address the larger 1.8 million population of potential DACA recipients.
With the Senate turning back this week to confirming Trump’s nominees, senators are pointing to a funding bill that needs to passed by March 23 to prevent a government shutdown as their next shot.
“Obviously we’re going to have to deal with the DACA issue probably on the [omnibus] because of what has happened,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) told reporters earlier this month, predicting the Senate would settle on including an extension.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), the No. 2 Senate Republican, left the door open to dropping immigration into the mammoth spending bill, saying “some temporary provision” could be included if both sides can reach an agreement.
An aide said that Flake and Heitkamp are discussing trying to get the DACA extension included in mammoth omnibus legislation. And a spokesman for Flake added that the GOP senator would support trying to link the proposals.
There’s no guarantee a DACA-border security stopgap could get the 60 needed to clear the Senate as a stand-alone bill, or that leadership is willing to include it in the omnibus. And its path would be even rockier, if not impossible, in the House.
A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) declined to say if the tight-lipped GOP leader supports a years-long immigration fix. Asked if McConnell would oppose including DACA in the omnibus, the aide pointed to his comments after the Senate failed to pass a deal.
McConnell left the door open to returning to immigration if a plan emerged that could pass both the Senate and the more conservative House and had what has so far remained elusive: Trump’s support.
“If a solution is developed in the future that can pass both the House and the Senate and be signed into law by the president, it should be considered. But for that to happen, Democrats will need to take a second look at these core elements of necessary reform,” he said.
But Democrats and the White House appear increasingly dug in, with Trump and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) exchanging barbs.
Trump, during his Conservative Political Action Conference speech, said Democrats had “totally abandoned” DACA recipients.
“They don’t want to do anything about DACA, I’m telling you, and it’s very possible that DACA won’t happen,” he told the conservative crowd.
Meanwhile, Schumer said “it’s clear to everyone but President Trump” that the president is to blame.
“Democrats have been willing to negotiate for months, and have forged several bipartisan deals, but his refusal to take yes for an answer led to his partisan plan that only got 39 votes,” he said.
Democrats have been loath to embrace a short-term fix because they believe it provides no long-term security for “Dreamers,” immigrants brought to the country illegally as children. Schumer hasn’t weighed in on the proposal.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat and a key senator in the immigration fight, is still urging action on immigration before March 5.
“Congress still has a chance to address the DACA crisis before March 5th, when 1,000 people will start losing their legal status every single day,” he said in a tweet.
With no must-pass legislation expected to come up before the deadline, Democrats’ options are limited. They could, for example, try to grind the Senate to a halt by launching an hours-long floor speech, limit the ability for committees to meet or try to get consent to pass an immigration bill.
No Democratic senator has signaled they are planning to create procedural headaches and much of the political oxygen is being sucked up by the debate over gun control following a shooting at a Florida high school, where 17 people were killed.
One Democratic aide described the current DACA debate as a “wait-and-see game.”
“[We’re] waiting to see what kind of traction Mr. Flake garners from his caucus on his 3-year patch proposal,” the aide said.
Two court decisions are further throwing the DACA timeline into limbo and helping feed Congress’s inertia, where lawmakers frequently wait until deadlines to tackle any legislation.
Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said that even though two courts ruled the DACA program has to stay on the books for now, “eventually that deadline [is] coming.”
“It’s not going to be March 5, it looks like, but it may be early April, it may be other time periods,” he told an Oklahoma NPR station. “[But] some federal court is going to step out and is going to rule one executive can change another executive’s decisions.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has set up an end of March deadline for action in his chamber and pledged to only bring up a bill that has Trump’s support.
Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar (Texas) said he approached Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), the House majority leader, on the floor and urged them to do “queen of the hill” on immigration, pitting Goodlatte and Rep. Michael McCaul’s (R-Texas) bill against a narrower, bipartisan proposal by Reps. Will Hurd (R-Texas) and Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.).
Under queen of the hill, competing proposals are voted on by the House and whichever gets the most votes is passed. But a top GOP leadership aide told The Hill “there is no queen of the hill strategy, the Goodlatte-McCaul bill is what is being whipped.”
And Cuellar said Goodlatte told him the whipping operation had still not garnered 218 votes.
“They were whipping last week, last Wednesday, before we took off. … Thursday, they did not have 218. They didn’t want to give me the numbers, but said, ‘Well, we’re working on it,’ ” said Cuellar.
But Goodlatte said the conversation with Cuellar happened “weeks ago.”
“The Securing America’s Future Act is the product of months worth of meetings and discussions with a diverse range of members and stakeholders. It is clear that this legislation is the only bill that can get a majority of Republican votes in the House,” Goodlatte said of his proposal.
“Last week, we had a positive whip count and we are working quickly to build on that support so that we have the votes needed to pass the Securing America’s Future Act in the House,” he added.
Despite Goodlatte’s optimism on capturing a majority of Republicans, Cuellar said the House Judiciary Committee chairman struck down his queen of the hill proposal, saying, ” ‘No, my bill won’t pass, and your bill will pass. You’ll get 30, 40, 50 Republicans. We need our bill to pass — the Goodlatte bill.’ ”
— Mike Lillis contributed