“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.”