KASU

Senate Fails To Advance Any Immigration Proposals

Feb 15, 2018
Originally published on February 15, 2018 5:31 pm

Updated at 4:25 p.m. ET

The Senate failed to pass any immigration legislation before a self-imposed Friday deadline, leaving lawmakers with no plan to address the roughly 700,000 immigrants who stand to lose legal protections as early as March 5.

The defeat follows a rocky 24 hours of negotiations on a bipartisan bill that failed following a veto threat from President Trump. By a 39-60 vote, senators rejected a White House-backed plan that became a partisan lightning rod after Trump insisted his plan was the only one he would sign.

Ahead of the failed vote, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, implored senators to vote for the White House bill.

"This is it in a sense," Grassley said on the Senate floor. "The only plan that can become law because the president said he would sign it. This is it. This is your last chance."

Republicans abandoned the bipartisan plan following the White House veto threat. That plan, negotiated by a group of roughly 22 Republicans and Democrats, would pair a 12-year path to citizenship for all immigrants eligible for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program with $25 billion in border security spending and limits on which family members the beneficiaries can sponsor for citizenship.

The bill failed 54-45, with all but three Democrats voting in favor. Among those voting against the bill was California Democrat Kamala Harris. A large share of the DACA population lives in California and Harris was under intense pressure from immigrant rights activists to oppose the bill.

It is unclear whether those currently protected under DACA will immediately lose legal protections if the White House repeals the program as planned on March 5. Court orders by a pair of federal judges in New York and California have blocked the administration's plans to end the program, meaning the government is required to continue processing renewal requests from people already enrolled.

Senators frustrated

The veto threat and other White House intervention frustrated Democrats and those Republicans who helped craft the bipartisan bill. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., expressed irritation that the White House was relying heavily on hard-line immigration advisers.

"You've got the most extreme characters in town running the show," Graham told reporters. "What do you expect?"

The GOP-written Grassley bill would have allowed 1.8 million immigrants a chance to apply for citizenship. In exchange, the bill scaled back current legal immigration by ending the visa lottery system and cutting family-based immigration policies, which the president and many conservatives refer to as "chain migration."

In a statement Wednesday, Trump said he would reject any bill that did not meet his four pillars: "A lasting solution on DACA, ending chain migration, cancelling the visa lottery, and securing the border through building the wall and closing legal loopholes."

"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," Trump said in a statement. "That includes opposing any short-term 'Band-Aid' approach."

Many Democrats and some Republicans said they wanted to focus on granting rights to those immigrants who are in the country illegally after being brought in as children. Roughly 700,000 of those immigrants stand to lose legal protections starting on March 5, the date that the White House has established for the beginning of the sunset of the DACA program, established by President Barack Obama.

Tensions were high as senators began to rally around Trump's demands on Wednesday. A visibly frustrated Grassley vented to reporters that Democrats needed to drop their opposition to the family-related portions of the bill and embrace the only offer Trump has embraced.

"The Democrats have been pleading for months and months and months for justice on this," Grassley said. "Now you've got a compassionate president who has gone way beyond what they ever thought he would do. Why would they turn it down?"

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

There's a headline on our website this morning - "Immigration Push Hits A Wall As Senate Deadline Nears." That doesn't sound good. As the Senate debates an immigration measure, a bipartisan group of senators did come up with a deal yesterday, but President Trump has signaled he would not be supportive. Republican Senator Tom Cotton is a close ally of the president.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TOM COTTON: The president's framework bill is not an opening bid for negotiations. It's a best and final offer.

INSKEEP: In other words, do what the president wants, he says. NPR's Kelsey Snell covers Congress. She's in our studios. Good morning.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: So why wouldn't this bipartisan deal be enough?

SNELL: Well, they had this deal early in the day yesterday. It looked like things were really coming together, but it's being negotiated by a relatively small number of senators. And it is far narrower than what the White House would like to do. The White House wants to rein in some parts of legal immigration. And these senators say that they don't want to do that.

INSKEEP: Oh, OK. So there's this deal on the table that would give a path to citizenship for people who brought - who were brought to the country as children and don't have legal status.

SNELL: Right.

INSKEEP: There's funding for a wall that President Trump wants.

SNELL: Right.

INSKEEP: But the sticking point is what else is in there. The bipartisan group wants basically nothing else in there. The president wants to limit legal immigration.

SNELL: Yeah, the - he refers to it as his four pillars. And the president has said over and over that he will only support bills that get to those four pillars. And this bill gets close, but it doesn't get all the way there. And while that's progress - that is certainly progress - none of the negotiators that I spoke with yesterday were able to commit to me that they have enough votes for that to get passed.

INSKEEP: Oh, that's the question - do you have 60 votes? So what's the atmosphere like?

SNELL: (Laughter) It is testy. It is frustrated. And people are getting upset. Senator Chuck Grassley spent a lot of time with reporters yesterday telling us how he thought that this was time to get a deal. He's the main sponsor of the White House-backed bill. He worked on a bill in 2013. Here is a listen to what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHUCK GRASSLEY: If they want to bring justice to the DACA kids and the DREAMers - now, this would include the DREAMers - then wouldn't they get behind it? This is what they've been pleading for.

SNELL: Yeah. That they that he's talking about is Democrats. He was getting worked up - this was actually one of the least worked up times that we saw him. He doesn't understand why they aren't getting a deal, why they can't just get something across the finish line. And people - Democrats tell me it's because the president won't support the other agreements that are out there.

INSKEEP: And the president's word can influence that many Republican votes at this point.

SNELL: Well, absolutely. It's a political risk to vote for something like this - a bipartisan bill that doesn't have the support of the president, particularly because Speaker Ryan has said that he wouldn't allow a vote on something that doesn't have the support of the president.

INSKEEP: Oh, and so lawmakers have to ask why would I take a risk for something that seems unlikely to become law anyway?

SNELL: Right. And so we'll see the Senate vote on about four different proposals today, and it's unclear if any of them have the votes.

INSKEEP: Kelsey, thanks very much.

SNELL: Thank you.

INSKEEP: NPR's Kelsey Snell.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAMMAL HANDS' "SOLITARY BEE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.