Senate Immigration Debate to Begin With Blank Slate

“The amendment process will be fair to all sides,” McConnell says

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has promised a “level playing field” for the immigration debate likely to take place next week. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has promised a “level playing field” for the immigration debate likely to take place next week. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted February 8, 2018 at 5:02am

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Wednesday he will kick off next week’s debate over the fate of 690,000 “Dreamers” with a shell bill that does not include immigration-related language.

The debate “will have an amendment process that will ensure a level playing field at the outset,” the Kentucky Republican said on the Senate floor.

“The amendment process will be fair to all sides, allowing the sides to alternate proposals for consideration and votes,” he said. “While I obviously cannot guarantee any outcomes, let alone supermajority support, I can ensure the process is fair to all sides.”

The announcement will likely assuage the concerns of liberals who scoffed at McConnell’s commitment to move to a fair and open immigration debate in return for Democratic votes to end a brief government shutdown last month.

Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin, who voted to reopen the government, said Tuesday night that Democrats “would take [McConnell] at his word” that the process would allow both parties a fair chance to shape the legislation.

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And it could embolden House Democrats who are withholding support for a two-year budget deal unless Speaker Paul D. Ryan makes a similar pledge. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi spoke on the House floor for over eight hours Tuesday to press Ryan for the same commitment as Senate Democrats won from McConnell.

“I hope Speaker Ryan does what Sen. McConnell has agreed to do,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said on the floor.

McConnell has not provided many specifics about the immigration debate since the three-day shutdown ended Jan. 21. Asked as he was leaving the Capitol on Tuesday evening how long the immigration debate might last, he replied, “Until we get through it.”

His GOP deputies said McConnell will make sure the playing field remains level.

“He’s been very scrupulous other than to say it’ll be an open and fair process,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn said. “And I believe it will.”

McConnell’s decision to call up a shell bill is not for a lack of other options. Senate Republicans have introduced several pieces of legislation as the Dreamer debate has unfolded, including one bill by Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley that McConnell said he personally supported.

Grassley’s measure wrapped together various conservative proposals and addressed President Donald Trump’s priorities, including more border security and limits on family-based, or chain, migration. An array of GOP senators supported it, including hawks like Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Dreamer advocates like Thom Tillis of North Carolina.

Congress is trying to reach an immigration accord before Trump ends the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program, which protects Dreamers from deportation, next month.

McConnell’s past stances on immigration don’t shed much light on how he’ll manage next week’s debate.

When the Senate debated the “gang of eight” comprehensive immigration bill in 2013, McConnell, then the minority leader, said simply that it needed significant changes, specifically on border security. And he demanded an open amendment process.

“The goal here should be to make the status quo better, not worse, and that’s what the next few weeks are about,” he said at the time. “Doing nothing about the problem is not a solution. It’s an avoidance strategy.”

In the end, the gang of eight bill passed the Senate by a vote of 68-32. McConnell was among the “no” votes, all Republicans. The measure ultimately died in the House when then-Speaker John A. Boehner declined to bring it to the floor under pressure from immigration hard-liners.