'Kate's Law' battle shifts to the Senate, testing Dems

'Kate's Law' battle shifts to the Senate, testing Dems
© Getty

The fight over immigration enforcement is moving to the Senate, where Democratic opposition will be tested.

The House passed a pair of immigration bills late last week: “Kate’s Law” to increase maximum penalties for criminal aliens who attempt to re-enter the country, and a second bill cutting funding to cities that refuse to comply with federal immigration laws. 

Republicans got an unexpected boost when two-dozen House Democrats voted for “Kate’s Law,” viewed by GOP supporters as a first step toward implementing President Trump’s campaign promises on immigration.

The defections came after House Democratic leaders said they wouldn’t twist arms to get their members to oppose the legislation. But the outcome is raising questions about whether Democratic senators up for reelection in 2018 will similarly break rank as the fight shifts to the upper chamber.

Senate Democrats are expressing confidence that they’ll be able to block the bills if they are brought up for a vote. 

"I will do whatever I can in order to stop them. These are only punitive in nature, they don't deal with the totality of the reality of our immigration challenge, and as a continuing part of the Republican saga that only looks at one element, and looks at it in a way that is totally disproportionate," Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezMore oversight of America’s international media networks a good idea Pro-Israel organizations should finally seek payback against Iran deal Dems Trump lowers refugee goal to 30,000, he must meet it MORE (D-N.J.) said. 

Democrats previously blocked similar proposals in 2015 and 2016. But a renewed push could force the 10 senators running for reelection in purple and red states won by Trump to take a tough, politically controversial vote.

A top House Democratic aide predicted that “Kate's Law” would be used in campaign ads against vulnerable Democrats. 

"The ad writes itself," said the aide. "They're gonna use Kate Steinle's picture in a Willie Horton-style ad," referring to a controversial 1988 TV ad used by President George H.W. Bush's campaign against Michael Dukakis. 

Red-state Democrats are remaining tightlipped about the two immigration bills amid the fight in the Senate over repealing ObamaCare.

But Democratic Sens. Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellySenate approves funding bill, preventing partial government shutdown Hatch warns Senate 'in crisis' in farewell speech Dem senators Heitkamp, Donnelly urge bipartisanship in farewell speeches MORE (Ind.), Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinSenators restart shutdown talks — and quickly hit roadblocks This week: No signs of urgency as shutdown enters fourth week Senate immigration talks fall apart MORE (W.Va.) and Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn Heitkamp2020 Election: Democrats can’t afford to ignore their Israel problem Hirono will donate salary earned during government shutdown Murkowski to reintroduce bill to help abused Native American women MORE (N.D.) previously voted to take up a bill toughening penalties on some undocumented immigrants who illegally re-enter the country after being deported.

A senior Senate Democratic aide questioned if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellRomney calls on Steve King to resign after comments on white supremacy Don't underestimate the power of nationwide outrage born from financial desperation Top Dem introduces short-term spending bills to reopen government MORE (R-Ky.) would bring up the House bills with Democrats still largely opposed to tougher immigration proposals.

“Nobody has changed their view on that to my knowledge. I'm not sure McConnell will even bring them up,” the aide said when asked if Democrats would be able to block the House bills similar to previous votes.

But Senate Republicans will likely face growing pressure to move a bill cracking down on illegal immigration after Trump praised the House-passed bill.

“Now that the House has acted, I urged the Senate to take up these bills, pass them, and send them to my desk. I am calling on all lawmakers to vote for these bills and to save American lives,” Trump said after the House’s vote. 

Trump repeatedly invoked the shooting of 32-year old Steinle on the campaign trail to promote his immigration agenda, including during his speech at the Republican National Convention last summer when he accepted the party’s nomination.

Steinle was fatally shot in 2015 in San Francisco by a man who had had seven previous felony convictions and was deported to Mexico on five previous occasions. 

The House bill could have competition for Senate floor time as lawmakers prepare to return for a jam packed three-week session where they have a slew of must-pass bills and a looming fight over Trump’s FBI nominee. 

But conservatives are already clamoring for the Senate to try to crack down on illegal immigration. Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzRepublicans seek to temper fallout from latest Russia bombshells Cruz says Americans outside Beltway unconcerned with Mueller investigation Cruz condemns King's white supremacy remark: 'It was stupid' and 'he needs to stop' MORE (R-Texas) wants a vote this year and has introduced his own version of “Kate’s Law.”

“The House of Representatives took a tremendous step today to protect our national security and ensure the safety of our communities by passing Kate’s Law,” Cruz said after the House’s vote.  “I look forward to the Senate swiftly taking up this bill and hopefully, passing it.”

Unlike the House bill, Cruz’s version includes a five-year minimum sentence for any undocumented immigrant who re-enters the country illegally after previously being deported twice or convicted of an aggravated felony. 

A spokesman for McConnell said he didn’t “have any [scheduling] announcements yet this week.”

Sen. John CornynJohn CornynSenators restart shutdown talks — and quickly hit roadblocks Former GOP rep: We would be 'storming the White House' if Obama mulled national emergency The Hill's Morning Report — Groundhog Day: Negotiations implode as shutdown reaches 20 days MORE (R-Texas), the No. 2 Senate Republican and a close ally of McConnell’s, is also working on a broader border security bill that is expected to touch on illegal immigration. 

The bill, which is still being crafted, includes mandatory minimum sentences for certain immigrants who try to re-enter the country after being deported, according to a draft copy of the legislation

A spokesperson for Cornyn confirmed on Monday that the bill would also target funding for cities that don’t comply with federal immigration policy but said “that provision is different than the bill passed by the House last week.”

Republicans will need to win over at least eight Democratic senators to pass any immigration or border security bill. Spokespeople for Manchin and Donnelly didn’t respond to a request for comment about their positions.

If the three Democratic senators did vote with Republicans on a proposal to impose tougher penalties on undocumented immigrants re-entering the country illegally, GOP leadership would still need to flip an additional five senators.

Their targets would likely include Democratic Sens. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillUS has signed off on thousands of child bride requests Three GOP Senate candidates, NRA may have illegally coordinated ads: report Poll: Sanders most popular senator, Flake least MORE (Mo.), Bob CaseyRobert (Bob) Patrick CaseyWHIP LIST: Who’s in and out in the 2020 race Senators' last-minute demands may delay funding bill Would-be 2020 Dem candidates head for the exits MORE (Pa.), Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownPro-Trump group doing opposition research on Sherrod Brown’s wife: report Press: White House not only for white males Sherrod Brown to make 2020 decision 'within the next two months,' wife says MORE (Ohio), Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonFlorida lawmaker diagnosed with pancreatic cancer Rick Scott threw party at Florida governor’s mansion after DeSantis and family had moved in: report Restoration of voting rights by felons marks shift in Florida MORE (Fla.) and Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterThree GOP Senate candidates, NRA may have illegally coordinated ads: report Immigration is pressure point for both sides in shutdown showdown Tester: Deaths of migrant children are ‘everybody’s fault’ MORE (Mont.) — each up for reelection next year in states won by Trump.

There are already early signs that a vote for or against the bill would be prime fodder for the 2018 election, where Democrats are defending 25 seats and Republicans are only protecting eight.

Sen. Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerTrump’s shifting Cabinet to introduce new faces Trump's most memorable insults and nicknames of 2018 Progressive strategist says changing demographics will help Dems MORE (R-Nev.), up for reelection in a state won by Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump boasts about checking gas prices while in motorcade: 'You think Hillary Clinton would've done that?' Harry Reid on Iraq War vote: 'It tainted my heart' New Hampshire is ‘must-win’ state for Warren, says veteran political reporter MORE, quickly hit two potential Democratic opponents for their votes against “Kate’s Law.” 

“Congresswomen Dina Titus and Jacky Rosen disqualified themselves from public office. Let’s be clear, Congresswomen Titus and Rosen sided with violent criminals, some of which have committed horrendous crimes against Nevadans, over law enforcement and keeping our communities safe,” said Tommy Ferraro, a spokesman for Heller’s re-election campaign. 

But Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineSenators restart shutdown talks — and quickly hit roadblocks Republicans seek to temper fallout from latest Russia bombshells Kaine on Trump border wall: Democrats don't want to 'waste taxpayer money on a vanity project' MORE (D-Va.), who is also up for reelection, downplayed the chances that Democrats would help pass the bill as long as Republicans are unwilling to discuss broader immigration reforms.

“Democrats are not going to stand for harsh anti-immigration measures, we're not,” he said. “If they're not willing to meaningfully dialogue with us about immigration reform, you're not going to see us embracing their super-partisan anti-immigration bill.”