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The Senate’s ongoing, unpredictable immigration debate: what we know logo 2/13/2018 Dylan Scott
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The Senate’s immigration debate is now open. It’s going to be messy from here.

Congress is beginning to address the plight of those covered by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which includes about 700,000 people who were brought to the United States illegally as children. Trump has said that he would rescind those protections in early March, putting the onus on Congress to come up with a permanent solution.

The Senate opened debate on Monday with an empty shell of a bill, thanks to a promise made to get out of last month’s government shutdown last month. Already, negotiations are beginning to move in the background. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), one of the most moderate and closely watched Republicans on immigration, told Politico about a new plan he is developing that would incorporate many — but not all — of Trump’s preferred immigration policies, including on $25 billion for border funding and changes to the family-based visa program. DACA recipients, who would be given a path to citizenship, would be barred from sponsoring their parents under Flake’s new proposal.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has promised an open and fair floor debate, with every proposal getting its chance to earn the 60 votes that would allow it to pass the Senate.

This is dramatically different from the Obamacare repeal and tax reform debates of last year, when Senate leadership more or less crafted its own package — with some back-and-forth from its rank-and-file — and put it on the floor for senators to take it or leave it. This time around, any proposal can get a vote, according to McConnell, and it’ll be up to the senators who are putting it forward to find 60 votes to approve it.

“It gives everybody a shot,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), the majority whip, told me last week. “It ought to be fascinating.”

There is going to be a lot happening on the Senate floor this week. Even if a proposal doesn’t get 60 votes, each vote will send an important signal about where lawmakers actually stand on immigration and all the contentious issues that come with it: DACA, a path to citizenship, Trump’s wall, family-based migration, the works.

At the end of this, some kind of plan might actually pass the Senate, putting pressure on the House and the White House to come onboard. We’ll try to keep things straight for you throughout the coming days.

The Senate has opened its immigration debate. That’s it so far.

Under the Senate rules, 60 senators need to agree to a procedural motion known as “cloture” to advance a bill and prevent a filibuster. McConnell called up a random House bill, which is serving merely as a vehicle to set up the action on immigration. (Fun trivia: That random House bill would have allowed federal tax credits to pay for COBRA health coverage when people move out of a job — but only if the House’s Obamacare repeal bill had passed last year.)

He easily got those 60 votes on Monday evening. So the immigration debate is rolling.

In the next day or so, the Senate will take its next procedural step, called the motion to proceed. That will require a majority of the senators (51, if every senator is present). After that, finally, the real action gets underway. Any senator will have an opportunity to bring up a proposal for a vote.

Under the ground rules McConnell has set, a proposal would need to get 60 votes to be approved and replace the House “shell” bill. This isn’t the usual way of doing things: Usually, a bill needs 60 votes to break a filibuster and then 51 votes to pass. But the thinking is that this streamlines the action, by simply having a single 60-vote threshold for amendments rather than going through that two-step process.

McConnell has promised that any proposal can get a vote, and it can pass if it gets the support of 60 senators. Now the question is: Which proposals will be put forward and can any of them get the necessary backing?

There are already a lot of immigration proposals out there

After months of negotiations, Congress has no shortage of immigration plans. As Vox has explained, the problem isn’t a lack of ideas; it’s a lack of the right kind of support:

It’s that the ideas that have been presented are either too far to the left to satisfy “a majority of the majority” among House Republicans or too far to the right to attract any Democratic votes in the Senate.

There’s a White House proposal that calls for a path to citizenship for 1.8 million undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children, plus $25 billion to fund a southern border wall, while substantially curtailing family immigration and eliminating the diversity visa lottery program in such a way that would gut the legal immigration system. It’s gained the support of conservatives like Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) and has been panned by Democrats and moderate Republicans.

Republican Sens. Chuck Grassley (IA), Thom Tillis (NC), David Perdue (GA), James Lankford (OK), Cotton (AR) and Joni Ernst (IA) and Cornyn (TX) have released a legislative proposal that mirrors the White House’s outline. It has gained McConnell’s support, but it’s not clear whether the majority leader will bring up the proposal as a substitute.

Also in the Senate, a bipartisan agreement between Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Dick Durbin (D-IL) would offer legal status, and eventual citizenship, to young unauthorized immigrants, give about a year’s worth of funding for the border wall, and eliminate the diversity visa lottery. But it was panned by the White House and conservatives for being too liberal.

There are a handful of other bipartisan proposals that follow a similar framework in both the Senate and the House, and still more working groups that have yet to come out with proposals, including Sen. Susan Collins’s (R-ME) “Common Sense Caucus,” which developed during January’s three-day government shutdown.

Most recently, a proposal from McCain and Coons would grant eventual citizenship to undocumented immigrants who came to the US as children and have been in the country since 2013, and some border security measures — but not the border wall. The senators put forward the idea as a proposal that could serve as the foundation for the floor debate on immigration this week.

A number of these proposals are expected to see a vote on the Senate floor this week.

New DACA proposals are popping up even as the debate gets moving

But this is unlike your typical floor debate, where there was more or less an established proposal and we knew what bill would get a vote and pass or fail. Under McConnell’s freewheeling approach to the immigration action, new proposals could keep popping up throughout the week — and they already have.

Flake, who had earlier been working with a bipartisan Gang of Six on an immigration plan, previewed a new proposal to Politico on Monday, one that tacks toward the right and embraces some of the key tenets of Trump’s desired immigration policies, particularly changes to legal immigration.

First, Flake’s new plan would provide a 10-to-12-year path to citizenship for 1.8 million young people known as Dreamers who had been brought to the United States illegally as children. Dreamers would, however, be prohibited from sponsoring their parents for legal status. Flake’s proposal would also provide $25 billion for border security, the amount that Trump has sought.

On legal immigration, the new Flake plan falls somewhere between the most hardline Republican immigration hawks and Democrats who are wary of such changes. It would restrict family-based visas to spouses and children and then clear a backlog of already-filed applications. Once that backlog is gone, family-based visas would be awarded for high-skilled applicants, according to Politico.

The new proposal is a reminder that we truly do not know how this immigration debate will end. Flake has also floated a punt on the DACA issue: three years of protection from deportation for DACA recipients paired with some border security funding.

But by the end of this, something needs to get 60 votes if Congress is going to any affirmative steps toward fixing the DACA issue.


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