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Senate moderates reach immigration deal — but GOP opposition builds

“We can do what we’ve done for the last 35 years, just quit and continue this mess. Or we can make this a substantial down payment on fixing a broken system,” Sen. Lindsey Graham said. | John Shinkle/POLITICO

Trump is pressuring Republicans to oppose any plan other than his own.


Rising GOP opposition is threatening to tank a last-gasp bipartisan proposal on immigration, potentially leaving the Senate with nothing to show for a government shutdown and a much anticipated debate over Dreamers.

The text of an agreement crafted by Senate moderates is expected to be unveiled later Wednesday, according to multiple senators. But Republicans who are committed to President Donald Trump’s plan showed no signs of deviating from his four-pillar foundation to a narrower bill that would focus simply on border security and a path to legalization for some undocumented immigrants.

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“The starting point should be something we know the president will support,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who has been in talks with Democrats on immigration in recent weeks. “If it doesn’t have a reasonable approach for each of the four pillars, I can’t support it.”

“The four pillars are what he would sign into law,” said Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), a top Trump ally who panned the bipartisan agreement. “It also has to pass the House. This is the question for the United States Senate: Do we want to pass a bill, or do we want to pass a law?”

The bipartisan plan would provide $ 25 billion for border security and a wall, a path to citizenship for 1.8 million young undocumented immigrants and restrictions on those immigrants’ parents becoming citizens, according to Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).

A number of Democrats said they were bullish about the effort, though Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) won’t say if it he backs it. Democratic leaders are gauging support from outside allies on the potential outlines of the bipartisan deal while awaiting its details, according to an aide.

The centrist proposal is a last-minute response to most senators’ view that the president’s framework, and its cuts to legal immigration, cannot pass the Senate and its supermajority threshold. Short of a compromise on a narrow bill, some senators argue that nothing will pass to address the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program Trump is rescinding.

“We can do what we’ve done for the last 35 years, just quit and continue this mess. Or we can make this a substantial down payment on fixing a broken system,” Graham said. Asked about what happens if the president explicitly condemns the deal, he replied: “Then we won’t go very far, and we’ll have three presidents that failed: Obama, Bush and Trump.”

“Everything’s a negotiation. We’re a separate branch,” said Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), adding that Trump “can veto it, or he can sign it, but we’ve got to pass it.”

Flake also defended the legal soundness of the bipartisan deal’s provision limiting parents of DACA recipients from getting sponsorship to remain in the country legally. That restriction, which goes further to the right than a bipartisan compromise Graham and Durbin previously crafted with Flake’s support, had raised some constitutional concerns among Republicans.

Senate GOP leaders have backed Trump’s framework that would include steep cuts to legal immigration. If all Democrats support the compromise — hardly a guarantee — at least 11 Republicans will also need to back it to reach the Senate’s 60 vote threshold. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) supports Trump, and whether he whips against the bipartisan bill will determine its fate.

The president himself urged senators to defeat anything that falls short of his bill’s four pillars: border wall money, a path to citizenship for 1.8 million young immigrants, cuts to family-based immigration and elimination of the diversity lottery.

“I am asking all senators, in both parties, to support the Grassley bill and to oppose any legislation that fails to fulfill these four pillars — that includes opposing any short-term ‘Band-Aid’ approach,” Trump said in a statement Wednesday.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) is the lead legislative sponsor of the president’s proposal. Grassley said that bill “is the only bill [Trump will] sign.”

The Trump administration also rushed to douse cold water on the bipartisan effort.

“It will never get a vote in the House, it will lead to the legalization of not 2 million but ultimately almost 10 million (via chain migration),” a senior administration official said of the moderates’ plan. “It’s a proposal going nowhere fast. It’s not even Schumer 2.0 — it’s Schumer 1.0.”

Those developments came as McConnell and Schumer set up the first amendment votes on immigration Wednesday morning and as Republicans lined up behind Trump. McConnell criticized Democrats for trying to find something better.

“No matter how long they spend in closed-door negotiations, they can’t change the fact that the president has spelled out a fair and generous framework that will be necessary to earn his signature,” McConnell said of Democrats. “These guys can’t take yes for an answer.”

Sen. Joe Manchin is pictured. | Getty Images

Schumer rejected that characterization and made a procedural move Wednesday that could allow the bipartisan group to receive a vote on their plan. He urged the Senate to come together to produce 60 votes before DACA expires under Trump’s March 5 deadline.

“Democrats are focused like a laser on finding a bipartisan bill that can pass the Senate to protect the Dreamers. Several moderate Republicans are working towards that as well,” Schumer said. “The one person who seems most intent on not getting a deal is President Trump.”

Even as McConnell attacked Democrats and Schumer laid into Trump for his proposal’s cuts to legal immigration, the group of mostly moderate senators in both parties left a Wednesday meeting signaling they were prepared to release their compromise later in the day.

“I believe our group has come together on an approach,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) told reporters.

Donald Trump, Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell are pictured. | Getty Images

Leadership of the two sides were represented by Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), although lawmakers leaving the meeting were uncertain whether all participants at the gatherings would ultimately attach their name to the still-forming agreement.

It didn’t take long for confusion to set in. Gardner released his own, separate proposal with Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.). And some members of the bipartisan group, like GOP Sens. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Mike Rounds of South Dakota, didn’t explicitly say they will sign onto the bill.

“Doesn’t exist yet,” Rounds said. “I want to be a strong supporter. But let’s just say for right now… we’ll still at work.”

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) predicted that the group would have a “sizable number of co-sponsors.” He suggested that the Trump framework could come up for a vote first, given the likelihood it would fail to get 60 votes. Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) added that his colleagues should “work as diligently as we possibly can today to get a consensus bill” but added that multiple options may yet emerge from the group.

Still, their time is running perilously short. McConnell has said he wants to debate immigration on the floor for just this week. And the Senate often leaves for the weekend on Thursdays.

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