WASHINGTON -- A Senate debate over immigration got off to a halting start Tuesday, with Republican and Democratic leaders immediately at loggerheads over how to move forward and President Donald Trump warning this was the "last chance" to extend protections to "Dreamer" aliens.
Trump issued the warning in a morning tweet as the Senate opened what was billed as an unusual and open-ended debate on a host of immigration issues. Democrats had pushed for the debate, hopeful they might be able to craft a piece of legislation in real time on the Senate floor -- or at least force Republicans on the record on some difficult issues.
But the experiment in legislating didn't get very far.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., began the process Tuesday by throwing his weight behind legislation based on the president's priorities.
He proposed allowing Republicans to bring up an amendment targeting so-called sanctuary cities, which don't fully cooperate with federal immigration authorities. Then, Democrats would bring up legislation of their choosing. Amendments gaining 60 votes would become part of the broader immigration bill.
The Senate's top Democrat, Charles Schumer of New York, quickly objected.
"To begin the debate as the Republican leader suggests would be getting off on the wrong foot," Schumer said. "Very partisan."
Schumer wants McConnell to bring up legislation that incorporates Trump's priorities and a second, much narrower bill from Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Chris Coons, D-Del.
His reasoning: Such legislation would address the population of Dreamers -- illegal aliens brought to the U.S. as children but many of whom were granted protections under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program -- whom lawmakers from both parties say they want to help, rather than side issues such as how to deal with sanctuary cities.
McConnell replied: "I'm not trying to dictate to them what they offer. They shouldn't be trying to dictate to us what we offer. We ought to just get started."
The disagreement pushed any immigration-related votes into today. That gives a group of moderate lawmakers more time to come up with a package that could generate 60 votes in the Senate.
"Until we reach an end there, I still hope that's the vehicle," said Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., one of the group's key participants.
Trump, in a morning tweet, said Congress must act now to provide legal protections to the Dreamers.
"Wouldn't it be great if we could finally, after so many years, solve the DACA puzzle," he wrote, referring to the program, established under former President Barack Obama, by its initials. He continued: "This will be our last chance, there will never be another opportunity! March 5th."
Trump was referring to the deadline he announced last year to end the program, though a recent court ruling rendered that deadline all but meaningless and another federal court decision Tuesday reinforced the earlier ruling.
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., continued to voice support Tuesday for a plan that he and six other Republican senators introduced a day earlier and which fulfills many of Trump's priorities.
That plan would legalize 1.8 million Dreamers, immediately authorize spending of at least $25 billion to bolster defenses along the U.S.-Mexico border, make changes to family-based legal migration programs and end a diversity lottery system used by immigrants from smaller countries.
The Secure and Succeed Act "is the one bill that can become law," Cotton said on CBS This Morning. But when asked if his bill has any support from Democrats, Cotton demurred.
"We won't know until we put it on the floor and have those votes," he said.
No Democrats are believed to back the plan in full -- and Sen. Dick 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 and how much money would be spent building 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.
McConnell on Tuesday endorsed the plan introduced by Cotton and others and called on senators to quickly unveil whatever else they might want to propose.
The Preserving Immigration Levels and Legally Enhancing Readiness Act, the plan in the works by Flake's bipartisan group of lawmakers, would establish a $25 billion "border trust fund" to provide up to $1.8 billion annually for border fencing and walls -- but the law would require annual reports on security operations and construction plans before funding is provided.
Flake's bill also would establish a 12-year path to citizenship for eligible Dreamers as Trump is seeking. In a bid to fulfill Trump's wishes, Flake's proposal would not allow Dreamers to sponsor their parents for permanent residency status -- only spouses and children. And the 50,000 visas distributed annually to immigrants from smaller countries would be redistributed to families awaiting reunification and high-skilled foreigners seeking permanent residency.
The bill by McCain and Coons would grant legal status to Dreamers in the country before 2014 but not immediately authorize money to build 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.
"We're all a little mystified on why the Democrats are refusing to have the debate and the votes they asked for," Cotton said Tuesday.
Durbin shot back that his party was focused on writing bipartisan proposals instead of partisan plans destined to fail.
"How many bills would they like to see, bipartisan bills?" he asked, insisting Democrats were working on multiple such bills.
Seeking to amplify his concerns about the current immigration showdown, Durbin told the story of Chloe Kim, the Olympic snowboarder who won a gold medal Tuesday, and her father, Jong Jin Kim, who immigrated to the United States from South Korea.
"He didn't have a college degree," Durbin said. "He spoke a little English, but he carried a Korean-English dictionary with him. And he had about $300 in his pocket."
Durbin added that Jong Jin Kim "might not have passed some of the merit-based tests that we're hearing around here" from Republicans.
Formal debate on the issue began late Monday when senators voted 97-1 to begin the showdown.
Only Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, voted against opening the debate.
A spokesman said he believes "it would be a serious mistake for Congress to pass legislation that grants a path to citizenship for those here illegally" -- a position that puts Cruz at odds with Trump.
Meanwhile, a weeklong 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-Texas, 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.
In the House, GOP Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin has said little about what he'll do, except that he will advance only an immigration proposal that Trump will sign.
Information for this article was contributed by Kevin Freking, Jill Colvin, Alan Fram and Darlene Superville of The Associated Press; by Ed O'Keefe and Mike DeBonis of The Washington Post; and by Laura Litvan and Sahil Kapur of Bloomberg News.
A Section on 02/14/2018
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