All Eyes on Trump as Senate Begins Immigration Free-for-All

Democrats see little reason to hope that the president will demonstrate the art of the political deal.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty

As the Senate kicks off its free-for-all process to craft bipartisan immigration legislation, some leading Republican voices are pinning their hopes on President Donald Trump to prevent any legislation they might pass from dying in the House as it did the last time Congress took a stab at immigration reform.

But Democrats have warned that relying on the president is a major gamble. Lawmakers on all sides of the immigration issue drew lines in the sand on Monday as they raced toward a March 5 deadline to enshrine legal protections for so-called DREAMers, those undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children, and approve new funds for border security—two of what Trump has said are four conditions for a bill he would sign into law.

“I don’t know what I’m going to find tomorrow morning with the first tweet of the morning and what he’s going to say during the course of the day,” Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) told The Daily Beast. “He’s just unpredictable.”

But at least two Republicans with whom Durbin has worked closely on bipartisan immigration proposals—Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ)—have publicly stated that they are pinning their hopes on Trump supporting the Senate-passed bill and, in turn, pressuring House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) to take it up in the House.

“That’s the best hope we’ve got,” Flake told The Daily Beast. “I do think that if we pass something with 65, 70 votes—that he’ll support it… If the president wants it, I think the House will go for it.”

It’s unlikely, though, that any bipartisan Senate bill will address all four of Trump’s conditions. Durbin said the president’s unpredictability is making Congress’ job harder—especially in a crucial week where the Senate is kicking off a debate that will yield an unknown result.

“Nailing the president down has been next to impossible,” Durbin said of his negotiations with the White House and other members of Congress. “He created this problem. We need him to solve this problem. We can’t do it alone. At some point, he has to be willing to sign off.”

Democrats might have lost their final leverage point last week when they failed to secure a commitment from Ryan for the House to vote on any immigration proposal that passes the Senate. Instead, he has said the House will only consider legislation that Trump explicitly supports, and that passes muster with a majority of House Republicans.

GOP moderates on immigration policy have argued that the key to preventing a repeat of 2013—when the Senate passed a broad immigration reform bill that the House never voted on—is for Trump to back whatever product the Senate approves.

But securing such support from the president will be difficult. Throughout his political campaign and his presidency, Trump has vacillated on what exactly he would sign into law—but more recently the White House has coalesced around four key pillars that, administration officials say, must be part of any legislation that Congress passes.

Two of those priorities—ending so-called chain migration and the diversity visa lottery system—have little to no chance of winning Democratic support, and a handful of Republicans would likely oppose such measures, too. That would make it virtually impossible for the Senate bill to win over the necessary 60 votes.

Republican leaders have acknowledged that a Senate-passed bill that wins over the highest number of lawmakers would likely only include two of Trump’s four pillars: enshrining legal protections for DREAMers while giving them a pathway to citizenship, and allocating new funding for border security. Those two components have broad support both among the general public and on Capitol Hill. But the changes to the “chain-migration” and diversity visa lottery systems—backed by conservatives—have been criticized as curbing legal immigration.

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“We cannot cut, for the long term, legal immigration,” said Flake, one of the leading moderate GOP voices on the issue.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who has been tight-lipped in recent months about what exactly he supports, announced on Monday that he would back a bill authored by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and six other Republicans. McConnell said the legislation has the “best chance” of winning enough support in both the House and Senate—but the bill essentially mirrors the White House framework that faces nearly unanimous Democratic opposition. And on Monday, the co-sponsors took a firm stand, describing their bill as a last-ditch true compromise.

“The president’s framework is not an opening bid in negotiations. It is a best and final offer,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) said. “The Democrats’ fundamental problem is that for four and a half months, they have been acting as if the president has made no concessions. The president has made multiple concessions.”

If the final Senate product is a slimmer piece of legislation—that is, one which only includes DREAMer protections and border security—Democrats fear that Ryan will not even consider the bill in the House, where Republicans have already coalesced around a more conservative plan introduced by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA).

House Democratic leaders drew criticism from their base last week for failing to unite behind a single strategy that could have forced a concession out of Ryan. Faced with a looming government shutdown, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) stood on the House floor for a record-breaking eight hours reading statements from DREAMers, and she personally opposed the bipartisan budget deal because it did not include DREAMer protections.

But she didn’t go further than that to bring Republicans to the table. Pelosi’s left flank criticized her for giving cover to the 73 House Democrats who voted for the budget—which, if it faced nearly unanimous Democratic opposition, would have forced a government shutdown that some Democrats hoped would force an immigration concession from Ryan to end the shutdown.

Instead, Democrats gave up their last leverage point before the March 5 deadline. And Trump holds the cards. Bipartisan negotiations are ongoing in both chambers, but Durbin said those meetings have yielded “virtually nothing.”