Two senators eager to see Congress start crossing items off its long to-do list introduced a bipartisan plan Monday designed to settle two of the more pressing parts of the immigration debate and let lawmakers move on to other issues.
Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) formally introduced a bill that would grant permanent legal status to undocumented immigrants known as “dreamers” and start bolstering security along the U.S.-Mexico border. But the measure would not immediately authorize spending the $25 billion President Trump is seeking to fortify the border with new wall and fence construction. Some Republicans are seeking at least $30 billion.
The McCain-Coons plan also would grant legal status to dreamers who have been in the country since 2013 — a larger pool of undocumented immigrants than the 1.8 million Trump supports legalizing.
The bill says nothing about curbing family-based legal migration or making changes to the diversity lottery program — two other priorities for Trump and conservative Republicans.
Coons told reporters Monday that he has not heard from top congressional leaders about his proposal and that he considers it one of several proposals that could earn a vote.
Coons said that “a broader solution” introduced by Sens. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) is one possible compromise for senators to support, but added that he is “also conscious of the fact that there’s very little time left” before the March 5 deadline to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program for dreamers. Coons said that Trump’s “unconstructive engagement” with Durbin and Graham on the issue means that their bill “may not be feasible.”
Trump, Durbin and Graham clashed in an Oval Office meeting last month when the president dismissed some of their potential proposals and labeled some African nations and Haiti as “shithole countries” — comments that roiled Washington for several days and contributed to a partial government shutdown.
Coons said his proposal with McCain could be a “fresh start” and a “strong starting place” for the Senate’s upcoming debate.
In a statement, McCain said the bill “would address the most urgent priorities” of legalizing the status of dreamers and make changes to border security — and allow Congress to move on.
“It’s time we end the gridlock so we can quickly move on to completing a long-term budget agreement that provides our men and women in uniform the support they deserve,” he added.
The new legislation comes as Congress has four days to meet another short-term spending deadline, at 12:01 a.m. Friday. Immigration has been a dominant subject of the months-long talks to set new federal spending levels, as Democrats have insisted on enacting changes in immigration policy to win their support ever since Trump announced plans in September to end the DACA program.
The program is scheduled to end March 5, although members of both parties think that an ongoing federal court case that challenged Trump’s decision could keep the program operating for at least a few more months if Congress does not act.
Trump, however, appeared to stand firm on his demands to fund the wall as part of any DACA legislation.
“Any deal on DACA that does not include STRONG border security and the desperately needed WALL is a total waste of time,” he tweeted Monday. “March 5th is rapidly approaching and the Dems seem not to care about DACA. Make a deal!”
A three-day partial government shutdown last month was forced in part by Democrats who withheld support for a short-term spending plan until Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) agreed to allow votes on immigration legislation if a compromise can’t be included as part of the next short-term spending bill. Negotiators in both parties and both chambers are still working on a potential plan and are expected to continue doing so this week.
Durbin, a lead Democratic negotiator on immigration policy, said that “there is not likely to be a DACA deal” this week.
He told CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday: “I don’t see a government shutdown coming, but I do see a promise by Senator McConnell to finally bring this critical issue that affects the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in America, finally bringing it to a full debate. That’s what we were looking for when there was a shutdown. We’ve achieve that goal, we’re moving forward.”
Whether the McCain-Coons bill could pass the Senate is unclear — but it is nearly identical to legislation already introduced in the House with wide support. The USA Act, introduced by Reps. Will Hurd (R-Tex.) and Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.), has 54 co-sponsors — 27 members from each party — and has been the subject of conversations between Trump administration officials and senior congressional leaders trying to sort out the contours of a potential immigration debate.
But conservative lawmakers and some administration officials already consider the plan insufficient because it wouldn’t do more to boost security along the southern border.
Like the House version, the new Senate bill calls for the use of drones and other technology to establish better “situational awareness and operational control of the border.” Rather than immediately spending the billions of dollars Trump is seeking for new wall and fencing construction, the legislation would require the secretary of homeland security to submit to Congress a new southern border security strategy within a year of the bill’s passage. That plan would need to include “a list of known physical barriers, levees, technologies, tools, and other devices that can be used to achieve and maintain situational awareness and operational control along the southern border” and a projected cost per mile for any changes.
“While reaching a deal cannot come soon enough for America’s service members, the current political reality demands bipartisan cooperation to address the impending expiration of the DACA program and secure the southern border,” McCain said.
Coons added that the bill “doesn’t solve every immigration issue, but it does address the two most pressing problems we face: protecting DACA recipients and securing the border.”
McCain is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a leading defense hawk who is furious about the slow pace of negotiations on increased federal spending levels. Supporters of increased military spending in both parties want Congress to enact a budget plan so the Pentagon can work on long-term planning.
McCain has Stage 4 brain cancer and has been absent from Washington since before Christmas. He is not expected to be on Capitol Hill this week.
Sponsoring this immigration measure is a stark departure from McCain’s aggressive stance on border security. During his 2010 reelection campaign, he vowed to “complete the danged fence” across Arizona’s span with Mexico. In 2013, he was a lead GOP negotiator on a bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform plan that passed overwhelmingly in the Senate but fizzled in the House.
Coons is a relative newcomer to the years-long fight over immigration policy — but he has been an eager participant in recent bipartisan talks to end a partial government shutdown and broker a compromise on immigration policy.
News of the new McCain-Coons bill was first reported by the Wall Street Journal.
Brian Murphy contributed to this report.