The Senate Has Kicked Off Its Debate on Immigration

Can anything come of it?

Sen. Dick Durbin speaks to reporters on Monday.
Sen. Dick Durbin speaks to reporters on Monday.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

The Senate voted 97 to 1 early Monday evening to open debate on an immigration bill. The next question, for which there is no apparent answer or secret end game, is whether the body can produce an immigration bill. The occurrence of an actual neutral, open debate and amendment process to resolve a policy issue is confusing to both young reporters and the many senators who haven’t been around long enough to see the Senate function as intended.

The main proposal that’s ready to go is one from Sens. John Cornyn, Chuck Grassley, James Lankford, David Perdue, Joni Ernst and Tom Cotton that codifies the White House’s recent immigration framework into legislation. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has promised a neutral process, endorsed the bill in remarks on the Senate floor on Friday. This bill, which would grant a path to citizenship to 1.8 million Dreamers, allocate $25 billion for border security, and make sharp cuts to family-based immigration, is not expected to get 60 votes on the Senate floor. So, then what?

The bipartisan working group calling itself the “Common Sense Caucus”—the group of moderates who meet in Maine Sen. Susan Collins’ office and pass around a talking stick—has had plenty of friendly, problem-solving bipartisan chats, but they have yet to finalize a piece of legislation. Even the common-sense moderates appear to have strong disagreements about what constitutes common sense legislation when it comes to immigration.

Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, a member of the group, told me that the sticking point involved “how simple to keep it,” and how to pursue changes to family-based immigration, or whether to pursue those changes at all. I asked him when their proposal would be ready.

“Well, it would have to be offered sometime this week,” he said.

Indeed, it would be wise to introduce the immigration bill before the immigration debate concludes. Though there’s been some chatter about the process going multiple weeks, the No. 2 Senate Republican, John Cornyn, told reporters that the process would need to conclude this week.

The proposals, and proto-proposals, each take a different approach to how broad the bill should be. Delaware Sen. Chris Coons and Arizona Sen. John McCain have put together a narrow bill that combines protections for Dreamers with money for border security, mirroring a bipartisan proposal from Reps. Pete Aguilar and Will Hurd introduced in the House. But that proposal won’t get many Republican votes.

Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, who’s tuned into several working groups, understands that the moderates’ group is prepping a bill that touches on only three of the four policy areas the administration laid out: Dreamers, border security, and the diversity lottery, but not family-based immigration. That’s why Flake is working on his own bill that touches all four areas, but doesn’t cut the overall number of legal immigrants—meaning some family-based visas would be redistributed rather than banked as cuts.

Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democratic leader on the issue, was somewhat less optimistic than I expected about the Senate working its way to a final accord.

“I just don’t know at this moment if we’ll have 60 votes,” he said. “I don’t know if we can get 11 Republicans to join all the Democrats.”

The debate that started nearly six months ago, when President Trump began the process of winding down Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and challenged Congress to devise a solution, bears little resemblance to the flashpoint of today. The idea then was to pair a solution for Dreamers with border security for a clean, narrow trade.

Each side has put all of its cards on the table for those issues. The White House has conceded that it’s willing to offer 1.8 million Dreamers a path to citizenship. Democrats, as Durbin said, have put on the table “a big ol’ beautiful $25 billion wall.” That means the conversation now centers on cuts to legal immigration that the Trump administration and its conservative allies in Congress have made a must. If the Senate is to work its way towards a solution, finding a compromise on an issue that sensitive, which both sides can live with, is the major obstacle.