McConnell: Senate Will 'Try to Pass' House Immigration Bill

GOP leader gives conservatives what they want, though the spending measure is unlikely to pass the Senate.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) answers questions following the weekly Republican policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol. (National Journal)

HERSHEY, Pa.—After hearing a week's worth of complaints from his conservative members, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Thursday that the Senate will attempt to approve a House-passed bill that guts President Obama's executive actions on immigration.

Months after the president announced his executive action to protect millions of illegal immigrants within U.S. borders, Senate Republican leaders have been cagey about how they will respond, raising concerns among border hawks within the conference. But McConnell affirmed at a joint House and Senate Republican retreat in Hershey, Pa., that he will work to get the House's bill—which passed that chamber Wednesday—to the president's desk. "We're going to try to pass it," he told reporters Thursday.

The House bill appears very unlikely to pass the Senate, where McConnell will need to attract at least six Democrats to reach the 60-vote threshold to end debate. Although conservatives have called on McConnell to bring the bill to the floor immediately, he did not offer a timeline for consideration on Thursday. Funding for the Department of Homeland Security expires at the end of February.

McConnell did not provide a path forward Thursday in the likely case that the House bill fails. Passing the House bill would "be our first choice," McConnell said. "If we're not able to do that, then we'll let you know what's next."

If the House bill cannot pass the Senate, conservatives are worried that McConnell, who has vowed to maintain funding for the Department of Homeland Security, will pass a clean funding bill without any language restricting the administration's actions on immigration.

The Senate Conservatives Fund is already sounding the alarm, warning in a fundraising email Thursday that McConnell may hold a quick vote "so he can throw up his hands, concede defeat, and move onto something else."

Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune declined to say Thursday whether the upper chamber would pass a clean funding bill for the department if the House legislation stalls in the Senate, but added: "We recognize the important role that the Department of Homeland Security plays in this country."

Members of the conference as a whole are still discussing how best to respond on the issue, Thune told reporters Thursday. Those conversations will continue during a joint panel on immigration hosted by House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte and the Homeland Security chairmen of both chambers, Michael McCaul and Ron Johnson, slated for 4 p.m. Thursday.

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, outlined the debate ahead of Thursday afternoon's panel. "None of us want to see DHS face any kind of a shutdown threat. Too important," he said. "But we also want to make sure we have done all we can to get the president to work with us rather than go around Congress and around the American people through his executive actions."

For now, leadership is staying mum on its overall strategy.

"Clearly we want to be able to give our members in the Senate an opportunity to vote as the House members did on that issue," Thune said. "There may be different ways and approaches to this issue that we can get the point across. We'll see."