The migrant crisis roiling the United States has made the complicated politics in Congress over immigration even dicier, with Democrats at sharp odds over how to proceed and Republicans pushing for far stricter measures than the White House would likely accept.
Tension is building among Democrats over whether to pursue bite-size proposals or seek a long-sought comprehensive bill, with Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin conceding that such a massive measure lacks the requisite support to pass the chamber while a senior Democrat, Sen. Bob Menendez, chided him for waving the “white flag.”
And yet even Republicans who have been open to more liberal immigration policies are shutting the door to that approach now as the party rails on President Joe Biden for not doing more to contain the crisis, meaning finding the necessary 60 votes in the evenly divided chamber to advance any immigration bill remains a daunting task.
The likely result: Legislative gridlock, especially on a comprehensive immigration bill resembling one passed out of the Senate with 68 votes eight years ago, with Republican advocates of that bill abandoning it now and top Democrats saying there’s virtually no chance enough GOP senators will back a plan that includes a pathway to citizenship to the 11 million immigrants in the country illegally.
“The world has changed in eight years – dramatically,” said Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican architect of the 2013 bill, which stalled that year in the GOP-led House.
Asked if he would back a comprehensive effort now, Rubio said: “Not in one big bill, no. You have to do it in pieces.”
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But doing it in pieces opens up a whole suite of other problems.
As the House looks to advance two piecemeal bills this week – to provide legal status to migrant farm workers and create a pathway to citizenship for people brought to the US as children, known as the DREAM Act – taking on such measures will be complicated to approve in the Senate where Democrats would need 10 Republican backers to move ahead.
Senior Senate Republicans are demanding stringent border security provisions and restrictions on asylum seekers to include in any such proposal. Yet if Democrats agree to such an approach, they are bound to invite backlash among progressives – particularly in the House
“It is going to be very easy to do something if this administration wants to control the borders, which right now, they don’t want to,” said Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the top ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, when asked about moving piecemeal proposals.
“I’ve said for a long time: The right wants to load up 11 million people and get them out of the country or they ain’t going to vote for the bill, and the left wants to legalize, or give everybody citizenship yesterday,” Grassley said. “And you can’t get 60 or 70 votes when that’s what you’re faced with.”
Rift among Democrats
The tension between abandoning a comprehensive approach this early in Biden’s presidency spilled into the open after Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, told CNN Monday evening that he did not see a path forward this Congress to give 11 million immigrants in the country illegally a path to citizenship, even though he personally supports that approach.
“I think we are much more likely to deal with discrete elements,” Durbin said.
Some Democrats pushed back on those comments.
“I don’t wave a white flag before I try,” said Menendez, a lead sponsor on Biden’s comprehensive immigration plan. “I don’t know how many people (Durbin) does see a legalization for, but certainly I hope it would be more than just Dreamers,” referencing recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which aimed to help immigrants brought to the US as children.
“I don’t think that’s acceptable,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democrat, said Tuesday night when asked how the base would react if Democrats don’t push through a plan with a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants.
Sen. Ben Ray Lujan, a New Mexico Democrat, added: “I do not believe that any of us should abandon moving forward for trying to get more support for comprehensive immigration reform. … I will not concede making progress on comprehensive immigration reform.”
And even senators up for reelection are sticking with that approach.
“We need to do deep, comprehensive immigration reform,” said Sen. Mark Kelly, a Democrat from Arizona who has spoken with Biden about the humanitarian situation at the border. Asked if he views the situation at the border as a crisis, which the White House has declined to do, the swing-state Democrat said: “Yeah. I mean it’s an incredibly challenging situation.”
But some top Democrats seem to be siding with the White House’s rhetoric.
“I wouldn’t call it a crisis,” Durbin said. “But it certainly is a challenge.”
Some Democrats eye budget process to advance party-line vote on immigration
Abandoning a comprehensive immigration overhaul isn’t an option for Menendez, who has begun floating the idea of trying to use a budget process known as reconciliation to legalize millions.
Using that budget tool would allow Democrats to pass the bill without a single Republican vote if they were unified, a tactic they used to approve the $1.9 trillion Covid relief bill on a straight party-line vote in the Senate. But given the strict rules associated with the budget tactic, it’s not clear changing the country’s immigration laws would be permissible under the rules.
Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, hasn’t said whether he would use the reconciliation process for immigration legislation – and ultimately that call would be up to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.
“To do reconciliation you have to have every Democrat’s vote. We haven’t had those conversations yet to know whether we would have every Democrat’s vote on that,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, a Democrat from Virginia.
Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, said instead of reconciliation, he wants his party to “get back to regular order.” “You cannot just assume everyone is against everything just because this place has become so (full of) tribalism. Somebody has got to try to put it back in place.”
On Tuesday, Schumer wouldn’t rule out attempting to pass a comprehensive bill, telling reporters: “My strongest desire is to pass comprehensive immigration reform.” He added that “we’ll do everything we can to explore that area.”
For many Democrats who have spent years trying to craft comprehensive immigration bills, the political reality is that many of their Republican colleagues who were willing to negotiate a comprehensive immigration reform bill or vote for it are gone – or unwilling to come back to the table
“I think what Sen. Durbin had in mind is to try to put together pieces of immigration reform. It seems like a more realistic way to go,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut. “Republicans have always been fearful of their own shadow when it comes to immigration reform.”
Sen. Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware, added: “Sometimes you have to start with modest bipartisan proposal and see what else you can build on top of it.”
In the House, Democratic leaders plan to schedule votes later this week on two bills aimed at giving recipients under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, a path to citizenship and at expanding the country’s agricultural workers program. The bills passed the House in the last Congress and are expected to pass again, but even those bipartisan measure face an uphill climb in the Senate.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina and author of the 2013 comprehensive immigration reform bill, told CNN that now isn’t the time for legislation to legalize recipients of the DACA program.
“I am all for taking care of the Dreamers, but you don’t want to take care of them and at the same time incentivize another way to legal immigration so the window right now to do anything doesn’t exist because that flow on the border has to be controlled,” Graham said.
Other Republicans say that any effort to legalize Dreamers or expand visas for farm workers will need to come with robust border security provisions, which could alienate progressives from backing a final deal.
“I think there are a number of us who are willing to work on immigration bills, but it does have to be very targeted and deploy some of the vetting practices we want to see,” said Sen. Joni Ernst, a Republican from Iowa.
This story has been updated with additional details Tuesday.
CNN’s Sarah Fortinsky and Ted Barrett contributed to this report.