WASHINGTON -- The Senate's two top leaders made a show of camaraderie Monday as their chamber began its immigration debate, but they also laid down markers underscoring the difficulty of reaching a deal that can move through Congress.
"We really do get along, despite what you read in the press," said Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., at a previously scheduled appearance alongside his counterpart, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., at the University of Louisville.
But just days after the two leaders brokered a bipartisan budget agreement and helped shepherd it into law, both men made clear that an immigration agreement will be tough.
"The time for political posturing is behind us," McConnell said later Monday on the Senate floor. He said that while Democrats have called for "swift action" on immigration, "now's the time to back up the talk with the hard work of finding a solution."
That, he said, would mean passage by the Senate and the House of a measure "which the president will sign."
Schumer said reaching such a consensus "will be like threading a needle."
McConnell expressed his support for a wide-ranging proposal by President Donald Trump that the Senate is expected to vote on this week. That plan, chiefly sponsored by Sens. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and John Cornyn, R-Texas, would pave a path to citizenship for up to 1.8 million young "Dreamers" in the U.S. illegally, a lure for Democrats that many Republicans oppose.
Trump also wants $25 billion for a border wall with Mexico and other security measures, as well as curbs on legal immigration -- a must for many Republicans.
The Senate's staunchest immigration hard-liners, David Perdue of Georgia and Tom Cotton of Arkansas, have signed on to the legislation from Grassley and Cornyn, as have Sens. Thom Tillis of North Carolina, James Lankford of Oklahoma and Joni Ernst of Iowa.
Many Democrats consider some of the proposals, including limiting the relatives that legal immigrants can bring to the U.S., to be nonstarters. The proposal would eliminate the ability of U.S. citizens to sponsor siblings, parents, and adult or married children for green cards, a provision that Democrats contend would drastically cut legal immigration and disrupt families.
In his own remarks on the Senate floor, Schumer expressed opposition to such a sweeping approach.
"The only enemy here is overreach," Schumer said. "Now is not the time nor the place to reform the entire legal immigration system. Rather, this is the time for a narrow bill" -- which Democrats have said would help the Dreamers and provide some money for border security.
OPENING THE DEBATE
The comments came on a day the Senate voted 97-1 -- Ted Cruz, R-Texas, provided the sole "no" vote -- to plunge into an open-ended immigration debate that's been promised by McConnell. Both parties' leaders hope debate can be concluded this week, but it's unclear whether that will happen or what the product, if any, will be.
"This is going to be done or not done this week," Cornyn, the No. 2 Senate GOP leader, told reporters.
A weeklong congressional recess begins next week. Lawmakers' focus will be the Dreamers, the hundreds of thousands of young aliens who have lived in the U.S. illegally since being brought here as children. The name is based on the never-passed DREAM Act, which would have given them protections similar to President Barack Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
They had been given temporary protection from deportation by that program, which Trump has said he'll end March 5 -- though a federal court has temporarily blocked him from scuttling it. About 690,000 people are shielded by it; another 1.1 million are eligible but did not apply.
Trump's overall immigration plan, opposed by many Democrats, stands little chance of prevailing because any measure will need 60 votes. Proposals will need substantial bipartisan support since the GOP majority is 51-49, and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has been absent in recent weeks battling cancer.
The president has already rejected a proposal from Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said he would be introducing today a plan co-written by McCain that would grant legal status to Dreamers in the country before the end of 2013 but would not immediately authorize money to build out southern border walls.
Based on input from GOP colleagues, Coons said he might tweak his version to include more immediate border security funding in a bid to win more Republican support.
Late Monday, Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., unveiled a modified version of the Cornyn-Grassley bill. Flake's bill would establish a $25 billion "border trust fund" that would dole out up to $1.8 billion annually for border fencing and walls but would require annual reports on security operations and construction plans.
Durbin told reporters on Monday that he doesn't think any Republican-led proposal can get enough Democratic support to prevail, including the Cornyn-Grassley proposal that McConnell endorsed, which Durbin said he doesn't think could get a single Democrat on board.
A bipartisan group calling itself the Common Sense Coalition, led by Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., has been working on its own measure but has not released a plan.
That group is focused on a narrower bill, one that would pair a path to citizenship for the Dreamers with funding for the border wall.
"The only way to achieve a solution to the DACA crisis is to keep it simple," Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., a member of the coalition, said on the Senate floor Monday.
But Cornyn said he could not support a narrow bill. "The president's indicated he would not sign such a bill, so that really doesn't meet my definition of success," he said.
Another hurdle is that any proposal adopted in the Senate must also be passed by the House.
Lawmakers in both parties seeking some accord on immigration say they don't want to see a repeat of what happened in 2013.
Then, the Senate overwhelmingly passed a comprehensive measure offering 11 million illegal aliens a path to legal status paired with a $46 billion border security plan. The House never took it up.
This time in the House, conservatives aren't giving any ground and would commit only to considering legislation that would meet Trump's approval.
Republican backers of Trump's plan told reporters that it appears so far to be the only viable path to law because if it passes the Senate, it could have enough support to clear the House and win the president's signature.
"This is the only bill that can become a law," Cotton said. "We have a plan to pass a law. Others have a plan to pass a bill."
Information for this article was contributed by Alan Fram and Kevin Freking of The Associated Press; by Sheryl Gay Stolberg of The New York Times; by Laura Litvan, Mark Niquette and Ben Brody of Bloomberg News; and by Ed O'Keefe of The Washington Post.
A Section on 02/13/2018
Print Headline: Senate opens debate on immigration