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Senate immigration debate quickly stalls

The Senate’s much-anticipated immigration debate stalled on Tuesday with party leaders feuding over how to even begin.

And there may not be much time left to reach a deal, as Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced that the Senate’s work on a solution to the expiring Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program would be limited to this week.

“Senators have had plenty of time to prepare,” the Kentucky Republican said. “There’s no reason why we should not reach a bipartisan solution this week. But to do this, we need to get the debate started, look past making political points and focus on actually making law.”

McConnell twice attempted to set up floor votes on a sanctuary cities amendment from Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and a competing proposal chosen by Democrats. But Democrats objected, with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) saying the Toomey language “doesn’t address Dreamers, nor does it address border security” — the two basic elements underpinning this week’s debate over the fate of hundreds of thousands of young undocumented immigrants who will soon be at risk of deportation.

“Let’s get this debate started on the right foot,” Schumer said. He proposed a pair of votes, on a GOP amendment to implement the president’s immigration framework and, from Democrats, a bill by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.) that addresses Dreamers as well as border security. The McCain-Coons proposal, which includes no border wall funding, has no support from the White House and would almost surely fail to get 60 votes.

McConnell chided Democrats later Tuesday for their objection, telling reporters, “I’m not trying to dictate to” Democrats which option they should put up for an initial vote, so the minority “shouldn’t be trying to dictate to us” which GOP proposal to call up.

Several Republican senators were under the impression last week that McConnell could allow multiple weeks of debate. That prospect seems to have faded, though, as senators race to submit their amendments to a blank immigration bill now on the Senate floor.

Democratic leaders also suggested Tuesday that the immigration debate could wrap up by this week. Schumer told reporters that “if we can get a bipartisan compromise that looks like it’s right in the ballpark of 60, let it rip. Let’s go.”

Two Republican amendments are expected to be ready imminently: The Republican effort to codify President Donald Trump’s immigration framework and a compromise plan from Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) that follows some of the contours of Trump’s vision.

Senate Democrats are also considering whether to introduce a partisan Democratic bill, according to one Democratic senator, and several bipartisan proposals are under discussion. Flake is also expected to introduce a bare-bones amendment enshrining DACA protections for three years in exchange for some increased border security.

But Republicans have chafed at talk of a centrist proposal to protect people eligible for DACA offered by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). The pair have yet to officially introduce their idea.

“I’ve got everything ready. I can give them five amendments today if he wants them,” Durbin responded on Tuesday. “And [McConnell] knows what’s in these things. It’s no secret.”

Durbin said he’s trying to fuse border security and protections for DACA recipients with some changes to family-based immigration. He said both Trump’s plan and the DREAM Act supported by Democrats will fail on their own: “It has to be something in between.”

Graham, like Durbin, declined to commit to pushing for a vote on a version of their plan. The ideal outcome, Graham said on Tuesday, remains “a consensus amendment that can get 70 votes.” He called the GOP version of Trump’s immigration framework “pretty good,” calling for “some compromise off that proposal,” though he declined to say he would vote for it.

Once senators in both parties produce some amendments, McConnell is prepared to hold alternating votes between Democratic and Republican immigration amendments, according to a Republican senator. That senator predicted none will get 60 votes in the current political environment.

“This is a very difficult issue. We’re all aware of that,” said Schumer on Tuesday. “We’re on the verge, it’s still hard. We’re not there yet, but we can get something done.”

McConnell is supporting Trump’s framework to cut legal immigration, provide $25 billion in wall funding and establish a pathway to citizenship for 1.8 million young immigrants. But the plan faces overwhelming opposition from Senate Democrats, giving it no realistic path to 60 votes in its current form.

“I believe it deserves support of every senator who’s ready to move beyond making points and actually making a law,” McConnell said. “But if other proposals are to be considered, our colleagues will have to actually introduce their own amendments rather than just talk about them.”

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