Can a Moderate Immigration Bill Squeeze Through the Senate?

The “Common Sense Caucus” tries a last-ditch effort to bridge the partisan divide.

Senate Minority Whip Sen. Dick Durbin speaks to members of the media on Jan. 23 in Washington.
Senate Minority Whip Sen. Dick Durbin speaks to members of the media on Jan. 23 in Washington. Alex Wong/Getty Images

A bipartisan group of moderate senators calling itself the “Common Sense Caucus” has finalized a piece of immigration legislation. It will be brought up during the grand, historic, freewheeling Senate immigration debate, during which zero pieces of legislation had received votes as of early Wednesday evening. With Republicans mostly united against Democratic leaders’ preferred proposals, and vice versa, the moderates’ bill represents the Senate’s best chance of passing legislation to protect Dreamers and secure the border.

But just because it’s the best chance doesn’t mean it has a great chance. The White House already hates it, raising a crucial question: Are at least 11 Republicans willing to break with their president?

The moderates’ bill touches three of the four pillars the White House has demanded Congress address. It would offer a 10- to 12-year path to citizenship for Dreamers and $25 billion for border security, including a wall. Most proposals have gotten this far and then get stuck on what else should be included. The conventional wisdom around the Hill seems to be that another element or two of dunking on immigrants is necessary to bring around Republicans. The “common sense caucus,” in their infinite centrist wisdom, settled on not allowing Dreamers to sponsor their parents, or to allow their parents to receive temporary status. It also would not allow legal permanent residents to sponsor their unmarried adult children until they become citizens. Illinois Sen Dick Durbin, who said he would support the proposal, told reporters Wednesday night that those visas, roughly 26,000 per year, would transfer to other eligible family members.

This is a rightward shift from last month’s bipartisan legislation, the “Gang of Six” bill, negotiated largely by Sens. Durbin, Jeff Flake, and Lindsey Graham. The new measure increases the border security dollar amount from $3 billion to $25 billion. The Gang of Six bill also allowed parents of Dreamers to apply for three-year renewable work permits. This does not.

“That [was] a tough pill for a lot of Republicans,” Flake said Wednesday. “This is a more centrist bill.”

Well, “centrist” is one word for a bill that protects Dreamers by selling out their parents; one can think of other descriptors. What was once a tough pill for a lot of Republicans will now become a tough pill for many Democrats.

“Going through our caucus, there are parts of this that are very hard for some of my colleagues,” Durbin said. Specifically: “Parents and the wall.” There are not 49 Democratic votes for this yet.

The new compromise, on the other hand, doesn’t include any of the 1920s-style cuts to legal immigration that hawks in the White House—including the president—had been pursuing in their own proposal. It narrows the arbitrary punching of immigrant families to a smaller pool.

A size much too narrow for the White House, of course. On a press call Wednesday, a “senior administration official,” according to Talking Points Memo, said early reports of the moderates’ plan suggested it was “worse than current law” and “not serious and not designed actually to become law.”

The White House has staked out the position that its proposal, as codified into legislation by Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, is the only bill that it will accept. This is the bill that restricts family reunification not just for Dreamers, but throughout the legal immigration system. As that “senior administration official” said, “our proposal is the way to go. Other proposals that leave chain migration in place would just produce catastrophic surges of illegal immigration.”

In a statement Wednesday morning, President Trump made clear that this hard line was not just a certain “senior administration official” freelancing, either. “The Grassley bill accomplishes the four pillars of the White House Framework: a lasting solution on DACA, ending chain migration, cancelling the visa lottery, and securing the border through building the wall and closing legal loopholes,” the statement read. “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.” The moderates’ proposal touches about two and a half of the four pillars. The president, for now, is against it.

The more worrisome factor in the short term is that Republican leaders in the Senate, who are managing the grand debate, appear to be on the same page as the president, and are trying to funnel the process towards a conclusion where Grassley’s proposal is the take-it-or-leave-it option. The sequencing of the votes, whenever they begin, is a key concern of the moderates.

“I’m sure Grassley, as the chairman [of the committee of jurisdiction], will want his bill last,” Flake told me. “The one that’s positioned last is in the best position.” Since the Grassley bill likely wouldn’t get enough Democratic support to reach 60 votes, getting it out of the way early is key to passing a compromise eventually. “Having voted on that, having taken that vote,” Flake added, “it’s easier [for Republicans] to vote then for a compromise bill.”

Durbin agreed that Republican leaders would likely save the Grassley bill for last, although he said “Chuck” was at work negotiating the sequencing. He didn’t think it would matter that much.

“I think the writing’s on the wall on the Grassley proposal,” he said.