WASHINGTON To find a way to turn the federal government’s lights back on, Republican congressional leaders have made a few promises on immigration.
But as the government shutdown begins its third day Monday, there’s little evidence that Congress will be able to bridge the stark divide that has made the issue unsolvable for years.
The Senate is warming to proposals to allow votes on all sorts of immigration plans. The House, dominated by more conservative Republicans, is holding out for a measure that would impose tough new laws and restrictions.
“There is a broad consensus on both sides of the aisle,” that immigration requires a compromise, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. insisted Sunday on the Senate floor.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., noted the parties were “so close that I believed we might have a deal.”
But they face a huge hurdle, one that illustrates why getting a deal to end the shutdown Monday could be elusive: The gulf between what Republicans in the Senate and the House could accept is deep.
Republican leaders have promised their members in their respective chambers debates on two very different proposals.
In the Senate, McConnell urged Democrats to vote for a three-week spending bill by promising that, if an immigration deal could not be worked out prior to Feb. 8, the chamber would immediately begin to debate various proposals. His offer is intended to be a concession to Democrats and even to many Republicans, who are tired of waiting for President Donald Trump to decide what he will and won’t accept.
The Senate plans to vote Monday on whether to limit debate on a short-term spending plan. If it gets the necessary 60 votes, and the House concurs — which is not assured — the Senate could begin considering immigration plans.
The plan most likely to succeed in the Senate is a framework from Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., that’s attracted support from nearly every Democrat and at least seven Republicans.
It would create a pathway to citizenship for nearly 800,000 undocumented children in the country through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which Trump has said he will end on March 5 unless Congress acts. It would end the diversity lottery program and allow $2.7 billion for border security measures.
The bill would also likely pass the House with help from almost all Democrats. But House Republicans are not enthusiastic. They dismissed the premise that Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., would even allow a vote on the floor on Graham-Durbin that’s unlikely to get support from the majority of the GOP and thus alienate the party’s important conservative base.
"No offense to anyone involved, I know all those senators, I like them, but Lindsey Graham and Jeff Flake don't represent where the majority of Republicans in the Senate are, let alone here, so how can they be lead negotiators on that?" said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., referring to Jeff Flake, a Republican senator from Arizona and another champion of Graham-Durbin.
Cole is right that many Senate Republicans would also have trouble swallowing this bill. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., who has his own, more conservative immigration framework, has called the bipartisan deal “a joke” for not doing enough to end the family-based immigration system that Republicans deride as “chain migration.”
Trump panned the measure in a heated meeting last week that Graham, Durbin and Cotton attended.
McConnell’s promise that the Senate might consider a measure like Graham-Durbin also runs contradictory to a promise Ryan made to members of the House: In exchange for their votes last week on the original, four-week spending bill, he would agree to hold a vote on a strict, conservative-backed immigration bill, provided supporters could secure a majority for the measure.
That plan, which would find no traction in the Senate, would cut legal immigration levels by 25 percent, block federal grants to “sanctuary cities” that don’t cooperate with federal immigration authorities, fund Trump’s wall at the southern U.S. border, end the diversity visa lottery and scrap green cards for many immigrants’ extended family members. It also would provide a three-year renewable status for current DACA recipients, the biggest nonstarter for Democrats who are seeking permanent protection for the young immigrants.
“We should do what the (2016) election was about,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus. “It was about border security ... it was about doing what needs to be done in immigration.”
Senate Democrats, like their House counterparts, ideally want a DACA fix to be attached to a spending bill itself. That’s a big reason why the Senate rejected limiting debate on the four-week bill in the early hours of Saturday morning, triggering the current government shutdown.
Democrats were pressing McConnell Sunday to commit to a timeline to consider immigration legislation and a process for debate, rather than a vague commitment to doing something in short order. They left the Capitol Sunday night still unable to trust the process would work in their favor.
“What we’ve always asked for is to make sure that we bring the equivalent of Graham-Durbin, or whatever variation that is close to the original, to the floor of the Senate for a vote,” Durbin told reporters. “And then we have to have in our own mind some way to assure that the House needs to bring up the issue as well.”
Graham, who first convinced fellow Republicans to accept a three-week spending bill in exchange for movement on immigration legislation, told reporters Sunday he believed Democrats needed to take the three-week spending bill deal.
At the same time, he acknowledged that there had been no decisions about the parameters of a DACA bill, even suggesting that was neither necessary at this point nor tenable.
“I spoke to the speaker (Saturday) night,” said Graham. “He’s gotta run the House. He said, ‘one thing I don’t want you to do is do anything that binds me, any deal that I’ll be bound to,’ and I said, ‘You’re right, Paul, you run the house, it’s tough over there, you do what you think.’
“I’m not asking anybody to trust anybody,” he continued. “I’m asking everybody to grow up.”