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Senate immigration deal on life support

A bipartisan Senate proposal to protect thousands of young undocumented immigrants from deportation is struggling to survive.

While negotiators in both parties reached a tentative agreement on Wednesday evening, prospects were dim amid strong opposition from President Donald Trump and Senate Republicans as well as tepid buy-in from Democrats.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said some of her fellow Democrats are “upset about” certain elements of the agreement, which she supports: “By and large, I’m hopeful that we’ll get there, but some of this stuff is hard to take” for other Democrats.

Likewise, Republicans followed Trump’s lead after he urged the Senate to defeat any amendment that does not mirror his own, which tackles border security, a path to citizenship for those in the Deferred Action for Child Arrivals program as well as cuts to legal immigration through the diversity lottery and family-based migration.

“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.”

Senators in both parties were racing to finish the text of their amendment in time for the Senate to consider their bipartisan proposal before the week ends. A draft version obtained by POLITICO led by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) provided $25 billion for border security, and a pathway to citizenship for hundreds of thousands of young undocumented immigrants. Senators were also discussing reallocating the diversity lottery’s 55,000 annual visas to a merit based system, but that language was dropped on Wednesday, a source familiar with the talks said.

A section on how Dreamers’ parents would be treated reads simply: “Under discussion.” A second source familiar with the talks said the final version of the bill will include more detailed language dealing with their parents. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). said it would place restrictions on those young immigrants’ parents becoming citizens.

Despite that progress, Republicans who are committed to 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. Privately, some Republicans fumed a bill being sold as bipartisan had the fingerprints of Democratic leaders on 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?”

A number of Democrats said they were bullish about the effort, though Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) wouldn’t say if it he backs it. Democratic leaders gauged support from outside allies on the potential outlines of the bipartisan deal while awaiting its details, according to an aide. Democrats met at 5 p.m. Monday to discuss the proposal and senators were optimistic that their party would mostly fall in line.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) left the caucus meeting predicting that “there will be consensus” among the minority around a “very simple” proposal, though he declined to say whether the bipartisan group’s plan had been scaled back to win such broad support.

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.”

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. Schumer 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.”

The day started with one last meeting of two dozen senators who have gathered for weeks to hash something out on immigration. 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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