The Senate is set to kick-off a free-wheeling debate on immigration Monday night — and no one knows how it will turn out.
The goal is to find a bipartisan compromise that can get at least 60 votes in the Senate, the minimum needed to pass most substantive matters. Lawmakers are looking for the legislation to provide some form of legal protection for undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children, while also bolstering immigration enforcements.
“It will be an opportunity for a thousand flowers to bloom,” Senate Majority Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said about the process.
McConnell has proposed what is a shell bill, to be amended and debated over the upcoming days and weeks. It’s a rare process for a chamber that often sees legislation drafted by leadership and then brought to the floor as is. Senators will vote to begin the debate Monday evening.
In September, President Trump announced the elimination of the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program which protected some of these undocumented immigrants, also known as DREAMers, from deportation. The president set a March 5 deadline for Congress to solve the problem. Despite a handful of proposals — some even bipartisan — there has not been a vote on a bill in either chamber of Congress.
On Monday, Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee announced a bill that would provide a path to citizenship for up to 1.8 million DREAMers, in exchange for $25 billion for a border wall and at least a 25% cut in legal immigration. The Secure and Succeed Act mirrors what the White House has outlined as an acceptable proposal.
McConnell endorsed the bill on the Senate floor on Monday, calling it a "balanced proposal."
"It offers a compassionate resolution for 1.8 million illegal immigrants who were brought to the United States as children," McConnell said.
The bill’s chances are unclear in the Senate, as most Democrats have said the cuts to legal immigration are far too drastic and some conservatives have issues with the path to citizenship being available for such a large group.
"Now is not the time, nor the place, to reform the entire legal immigration system. Rather this is the moment for a narrow bill and every ounce of our energy is going into finding one that can pass," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said on the floor Monday.
Senate Judiciary Chair Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, called the legislation “a reasonable approach” that “is the only Senate proposal that has any chance of passing the House and being signed into law.”
Unlike the Senate — where the GOP has a 51-49 majority but legislation needs 60 votes to pass — Republicans in the House have a large enough majority that they don’t need a single Democrat’s support.
Before he became speaker, Rep. Paul Ryan promised some of his party’s most conservative members that he wouldn’t bring up immigration legislation that did not have the support of the majority of his party. Ryan has also said he won’t bring up legislation that doesn’t have the support of the president, to avoid risking a veto.
"There's a lot at stake here, I take it personally because this has been a big part of my Senate career," said Sen. Dick Durbin, the Democratic whip. Durbin has been a key player in the immigration debate and is a member of the "gang of six" — a bipartisan group of six senators working to find a solution.
But Durbin wasn't sure what would happen.
"I just don't know at this moment if we'll have 60 votes, I don't know if we can get 11 Republicans to join all the Democrats," he said.
That "gang of six" previously outlined a more moderate plan that touches on the four areas the White House said it would like to see addressed — legal protections for DREAMers; money for border security and a wall; changes to family based or “chain” migration; and an end to the diversity visa lottery program.
But the White House said the "gang of six" proposal doesn’t offer adequate changes and has rejected it. Durbin said the bipartisan group was still deciding if they would introduce the proposal, or something similar, as an amendment.