Immigration Battle Set to Begin in Senate

 Gabrielle Levy

The immigration debate will get its day in the Senate on Monday, when lawmakers will kick off an unusually open process in an effort to settle an issue that has become a legislative stumbling block with hundreds of thousands of immigrants' lives hanging in the balance.

Senators are expected to vote Monday evening to open debate, and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has vowed to allow multiple proposals to compete in order to see which solution – if any – is able to attract the support of the at least 60 senators needed to pass.

"Whoever gets to 60 wins," the Kentucky Republican told reporters last week. "There's no secret plan here to try to push this in any direction. The Senate is going to work its will, and I hope that we will end up passing something."

President Donald Trump announced in September that he would end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which shields young immigrants brought illegally to the U.S. as children from deportation, in March.

His announcement touched off months of wrangling among working groups that produced multiple partisan and bipartisan proposals, with varying degrees of support from across Congress and the White House. Any number of those proposals are likely to be introduced for debate, but it's unclear whether any can attract significant bipartisan support required to pass.

On Sunday night, a group of Republican senators who have worked closely with the White House said they would introduce the administration's proposed framework – pairing a path to citizenship for 1.8 million DACA-eligible immigrants with enhanced border security, reducing legal immigration through the elimination of the visa lottery and severely curtailing family reunification policies.

The bill would grant $25 billion for border security measures that include "physical and virtual fencing, radar and other technologies." Trump has remained insistent in getting a wall built on the border with Mexico, even as lawmakers and some of his top aides have acknowledged that a solid wall is likely neither feasible nor the most secure barrier.

"By addressing our border security needs and limiting family sponsorship to the nuclear family, it goes far beyond the other half measures that have been proposed. This bill is generous, humane, and responsible, and now we should send it to the president's desk," Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., said of the bill, which he called "the only bill that has the chance of becoming law."

But the proposal is one that has already been denounced by Democrats as cruelly anti-immigrant, and is unlikely to advance through the Senate, where Republicans hold a slim 51-49 majority and must get the support of at least nine Democrats to reach the 60-vote threshold.

If no bill is passed by the March 5 deadline, thousands of so-called Dreamers could begin to lose their protected status each week. But even that is uncertain, following a federal court's ruling in January against Trump's rollback of the program, pending an appeal to the Supreme Court.

Bracing for that possibility, Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., has proposed a "fallback" plan that would match a three-year extension of DACA protections with a smaller amount of border security funding.

And even if the Senate is able to coalesce around a path on a broader immigration deal, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has refused to commit to allowing a similarly open process or taking up a Senate-passed bill.

On Thursday, he emphasized the need to pass legislation that would attract Trump's support, rather than daring the president to veto whatever Congress can agree to pass.

"To anyone who doubts my intention to solve this problem and bring up a DACA and immigration reform bill, do not," Ryan told reporters. "We will bring a solution to the floor, one the president will sign."

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