The Senate’s top Republican endorsed a plan Monday that would revamp immigration policy the way President Trump wants to, as senators began debating whether to grant permanent legal status to some young undocumented immigrants and bolster the nation’s southern border security.
The showdown began with no sense of what might ultimately pass the closely divided Senate and could be sent to the House before reaching Trump for his signature.
The only thing senators agreed on with near unanimity was to start the discussion, voting 97 to 1 on Monday night.
“The American people have heard no shortage of rhetoric on this issue. They have heard many of my colleagues across the aisle insist this issue requires swift action,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky). “Now is the time to back up the talk with the hard work of finding a workable solution.”
McConnell endorsed a sweeping GOP plan that fulfills Trump’s calls to legalize the status of 1.8 million “dreamers,” spends at least $25 billion to bolster defenses along the U.S.-Mexico border, makes changes to family-based legal migration programs and ends a diversity lottery system used by immigrants from smaller countries.
The Secure and Succeed Act is “the only piece of legislation that can get through the Senate, through the House of Representatives, most importantly signed by the president,” said its lead sponsor, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa).
But no Democrats are believed to back the plan in full — and Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) described it as “an all-Republican measure.”
Many Democrats do not like how the proposal would chip away at family-based legal migration — what conservatives deride as “chain” migration — and how much money would be spent to build a wall and fencing along the southern border.
Trump repeatedly said during the 2016 campaign that Mexico would pay for the wall, but instead he is seeking billions in U.S. taxpayer dollars to build it.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) called for a modest solution focused mostly on protecting people whose permanent legal status is set to expire when the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, ends on March 5.
“This is the moment for a narrow bill, and every ounce of energy is going into finding one that can pass,” Schumer said.
The leaders’ differing views on the immigration debate came just hours after they made a rare joint appearance in Kentucky at an academic center named for McConnell at the University of Louisville and said they maintain a cordial working relationship.
“We don’t dislike each other,” McConnell said at the event. “We have to work together.”
Back in Washington, McConnell warned colleagues that he is launching a freewheeling exchange that will require rare bipartisan cooperation to find a solution that can earn at least 60 votes to survive procedural challenges and earn final passage.
Trump had canceled the Obama-era DACA program last September and asked Congress to resolve the issue.
A week-long congressional recess begins next week and debate on immigration is only expected to continue for this week, according to Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Tex.), who helps control the floor schedule.
“At that point if the Senate hasn’t worked its will, I think maybe there aren’t 60 votes for anything,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.).
Late Monday, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) unveiled a modified version of the bill announced by Grassley and others. Flake’s bill would establish a $25 billion “border trust fund” that would dole out up to $1.8 billion annually to build out border fencing and walls, but would require annual reports on security operations and construction plans. Among other provisions, his bill would establish a 12-year path to citizenship for eligible dreamers.
Also, Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) said he would be introducing on Tuesday a plan co-authored by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) that would grant legal status to dreamers in the country since 2013 but not immediately authorize money to build out southern border walls and fencing.
A similar version of the bill has been introduced in the House, with 54 sponsors in both parties. Based on input from GOP colleagues, Coons said he might tweak his version of the legislation to include more immediate border security funding in a bid to win more Republican support.
Talks continued over the weekend among about two dozen other Democrats and Republicans, according to aides in both parties, signaling that they are struggling to reach a potential solution in a chamber divided between 51 Republicans and 49 members of the Democratic caucus. And both parties know that Trump could scuttle any deal with an early-morning tweet.
“Nailing down the president has been next to impossible,” said Durbin, a lead Democratic broker on immigration policy.
At the White House, Trump encouraged the two parties to reach an agreement.
“If Democrats want a deal, it’s really up to them,” he told reporters, adding later, “We start really serious DACA talks today.”
Durbin said he has not ruled out introducing the Dream Act, a bill first unveiled during George W. Bush’s presidency that would provide blanket legal protections for millions of dreamers. While the concept has broad national support, Republicans are expected to oppose the plan unless it is coupled with changes in border security or immigration enforcement.
“There’s a lot at stake here,” said Durbin, who has devoted much of his Senate career to seeking changes in immigration policy.
“I just don’t know at this moment if we’ll have 60 votes,” he said. “I don’t know if we can get 11 Republicans to join all the Democrats on anything.”
The lone vote against moving ahead on debating the issue Monday was Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.).