He gave them six months to come to an agreement on a legislative initiative that has vexed previous Congresses for decades. With that deadline less than three weeks away, the spotlight shifted to the Senate this week—and lawmakers missed yet another chance to seal the fate of undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children.
From the day he rescinded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program last September, Trump appeared to waver—both in public and in private—on what exactly he would support. Nearly six months of bipartisan, bicameral backroom negotiations and public pleas to solve the problem yielded nothing that could pass the Senate, and four different immigration proposals all went down on Thursday.
“I think it’s safe to say it’s been a disappointing week,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said.
When the Senate formally launched its much anticipated open-ended immigration debate on Monday, lawmakers were optimistic that they could reach a reasonable compromise that could win the support of at least 60 senators.
But as the week progressed, the free-for-all debate that McConnell had promised quickly began to derail. Partisan sniping prevented votes from being held until Thursday—the third official day of the process.
The optimism that was omnipresent at the beginning of the week quickly turned to outright dejection when the Senate on Thursday failed to advance three immigration proposals that addressed the fate of so-called DREAMers and allocated new funding for border security. A fourth proposal addressed so-called sanctuary cities, which do not give full assistance to the federal government for the enforcement of immigration laws. That failed, too.
The amendment that mirrored Trump’s desired immigration framework fared the worst, garnering just 39 votes—well short of the requisite 60. The plan was criticized because of its cuts to legal immigration, and all but three Democrats opposed it. Just 36 of the chamber’s 51 Republicans voted for that amendment, which would have provided a pathway to citizenship for 1.8 million DREAMers and $25 billion for a border wall, while essentially scrapping the so-called chain-migration and diversity visa lottery systems. The latter two measures were non-starters for Democrats.
Senators from both parties said the result—that Trump’s plan won the lowest number of votes—was an indictment of the president’s leadership on the issue.
“I think it is striking that the president’s far-right proposal got 60 votes against it,” Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) told The Daily Beast. “He needs to let the Senate do its work and stop lobbying against a bipartisan bill that could have solved this problem.”
On Thursday, the Trump administration launched a full-throated, multi-agency effort to torch a last-ditch bipartisan proposal that was introduced on Wednesday by Sens. Mike Rounds (R-SD) and Angus King (I-ME). The Department of Homeland Security said the plan “significantly increases the risk of crime and terrorism,” while White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders dubbed it a “dangerous policy that will harm the nation.” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), a staunch ally of the president on immigration, said lawmakers who vote for the measure “should be concerned for their electoral futures.” The White House also issued a veto threat.
The measure failed, with only 54 senators in favor. Many lawmakers said the administration’s lobbying efforts helped kill it. But the bipartisan proposal fared the best out of all four immigration-related amendments that the Senate considered on Wednesday. Democrats and Republicans who supported it said they hoped it would be a wake-up call to the White House.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who has positioned himself as a Trump ally of late but broke with the White House on immigration, laid the blame for Thursday’s failure squarely on the president.
“The president has the ability to lead on this issue. He’s got to take the reins back from people in the White House who can never get to ‘yes,’” Graham said, referring specifically to top policy adviser Stephen Miller, a noted immigration hardliner.
As the tenor of the week shifted dramatically by Thursday, the entire debate both on Capitol Hill and at the White House shaped up not as an attempt to get a true result—but as a political exercise in positioning themselves not to be blamed for the inevitable failure.
Earlier in the day, the White House held a background briefing with reporters to blast the bipartisan Rounds-King plan. Despite repeated requests for the briefing to be on the record, the White House said the officials could only be quoted anonymously. A senior White House official not only impugned the senators who had signed onto the Rounds-King plan, but said they might have been “grievously misinformed about the bill’s contents.” The official also referred to Graham as the “chairman of the Democratic caucus” and an “obstacle” to true immigration reform.
As dejected senators walked out of the chamber on Thursday afternoon, they pleaded with Trump to facilitate a bipartisan proposal that can pass both houses of Congress, instead of holding firm on a framework that can’t pass in the Senate.
“There’s probably 75 votes for a border security plan and a pathway to citizenship for the DACA recipients. But you need presidential leadership. And without it, we won’t get there,” Graham said.
In the immediate aftermath of the four failed votes, senators began floating the possibility of a one- to three-year extension for DACA. Kicking the can down the road on monumental legislation initiatives is Congress’ forte. But with both the House and White House unlikely to entertain such an option, lawmakers were unsure whether DREAMers would ultimately be shielded from deportation.
“I don’t know,” Graham said bluntly when asked what’s next for those undocumented immigrants.
When the Senate returns from its recess after next week, it will turn to other issues, McConnell said. He said he would consider immigration-related legislation if lawmakers can come together on a plan “that can pass both the House and the Senate and be signed into law by the president.”
The sense of urgency to pass something before March 5 was greatly diminished this week when a second federal judge blocked the administration from immediately ending DACA. And with House Republican leaders whipping support for legislation that is, in many respects, more conservative than the White House framework, the path forward on a long-term solution for the DREAMer population remains unclear.
When asked what happens next for DREAMers, King was stone-faced.
“Ask the president,” he said before walking into the Senate chamber.