The Great Senate Immigration Debate That Wasn't

Mitch McConnell promised an open, freewheeling process to finally resolve the fate of DACA and the Dreamers. But amid more partisan bickering, the attempt has stalled before it even began.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell walk to the chamber after collaborating on a budget agreement last week.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell walk to the chamber. after collaborating on a budget agreement last week. (Eric Thayer / Reuters)

This was supposed to be the week when the Senate strutted its stuff, when the vaunted committee of 100 held an open, freewheeling debate to resolve—for now—the weighty issue of immigration and the fate of 700,000 young undocumented immigrants whose protection from deportation could soon expire. There would be no precooked deals foisted upon senators by their leadership, no pointless political grandstanding.

Under an agreement reached between Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer that ended last month’s government shutdown—not to be confused with this month’s—the Senate would spend a week debating immigration, border security, and the future of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which President Trump plans to end on March 5. Senators would consider amendments from all sides, vote them up or down, and hopefully arrive at a consensus that could muster 60 votes and move on to the House.

Well, so much for that.

Two days into immigration week on the Senate floor, there’s been hardly any debating and even less voting. The Great Immigration Debate has devolved into yet another partisan staring contest, with McConnell and Schumer bickering over which proposals get votes and when.

“I’m ready to get started. This is the debate they said they wanted,” McConnell told reporters on Tuesday afternoon, outside a Senate chamber that was curiously devoid of much activity. “We could have voted on amendments all day today.”

Shortly after noon, Schumer had rejected McConnell’s bid to hold an opening vote on a proposal from Republican Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania that would withhold funding from so-called sanctuary cities that shield undocumented immigrants from federal law enforcement. The Senate had already voted to begin debate on what was essentially a blank piece of legislation offered by McConnell, and Toomey’s proposal would have been the first amendment. That measure, Schumer complained, “does absolutely nothing to address DACA, does absolutely nothing to address border security.”

McConnell, in turn, blocked Schumer’s request to vote on a pair of DACA bills: one from Republicans reflecting Trump’s proposal to combine a path to citizenship for 1.8 million young immigrants with funding for a border wall and reductions in legal immigration, and a bipartisan measure that represents the Democrats’ starting bid—it would offer citizenship for Dreamers in exchange for border-security money. “I don’t think either of them will get large bipartisan support, but it will give us an idea of the parameters and can set us moving,” Schumer said of his suggested path forward.

The standoff left the Senate frozen, wasting precious hours in a process that McConnell said must be completed this week before the chamber heads out for a President’s Day recess.

Yet if the debate’s slow start is dispiriting for the hundreds of thousands of people whose lives could depend on its outcome, it’s not particularly surprising. “If you didn’t go into this debate realizing something like this was going to happen, you weren’t paying attention,” said Jim Manley, a veteran Senate aide who worked for Edward Kennedy and then for Harry Reid when the latter man served as majority leader. “I defy you to find worse debates in recent history than those over immigration. They are ugly, bloody debates chock-full of highly partisan social issues that seek only to divide and don’t bring anyone together.”

At the heart of this procedural stalemate is a competing tension familiar to members of both parties: Lawmakers like to call publicly for an open legislative process, but they don’t like having to take the risky political votes that come with it. “Be careful what you wish for: There are no free shots in the Senate,” Manley told me. By objecting to McConnell’s plan, Schumer is protecting the many Democrats running for reelection in red states from having to vote down a sanctuary-cities proposal that many of their constituents might support (among other potential motivations).

Democrats are also skeptical that McConnell is operating in good faith and not using his power to control the floor to steer the process toward a bill that ultimately fails. Even in a supposedly loose debate, key decisions belong to him, and his move to bring up a partisan proposal first was seen as boding ill for the rest of the week. “I sincerely hope I’m wrong and that a solution that protects DREAMers and is acceptable to both sides is reached and passed,” tweeted another former Reid adviser, Adam Jentleson. “But if you think McConnell is going into this week without an endgame in mind, I have a bridge to sell you.”

Republicans, meanwhile, say it’s the Democrats who are gaming the process by trying to pick and choose which amendments to vote on rather than just considering all comers. “We’re going to find out real soon if Democrats are serious, whether they want a solution or whether they just want a campaign issue,” Senator John Thune of South Dakota told reporters. One key divide is simply on the scope of the bill: Democrats want to limit the discussion to DACA and border security, while Republicans are heeding Trump’s insistence that it also include reductions to family-based immigration and the diversity visa lottery. “We continue to believe a narrow proposal has the best chance of passing the Senate and the best chance of being signed into law,” Schumer said during an afternoon press conference. “Once you get outside of the boundaries of Dreamers and border security, experience shows everything runs amok.”

It’s still possible, of course, that a consensus immigration bill emerges from this morass with the necessary 60 votes to defeat a filibuster. A bipartisan group of more than two dozen senators has been discussing a proposal that could break the logjam; it would combine a path to citizenship for Dreamers and funding for Trump’s border wall. Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona has floated a compromise closer to Trump’s proposal, while other senators have talked about a more limited bill that merely extends protections for DACA recipients for a few years in exchange for additional border-security funding.

Whether any of those ideas can pass through the more conservative House or earn Trump’s signature is unclear. First, though, the Senate has to get moving with its much-hyped debate. The amendment votes could at last begin as soon as Tuesday night. Optimists might say that as long as the groups in search of a solution keep talking, anything is possible. But Manley, for one, isn’t holding his breath for a breakthrough. When I asked for his prediction, he replied: “It’ll fall apart in spectacular fashion.”