Time running short for latest immigration proposal in Senate

Leading GOP backer says he doesn’t see the deal’s inclusion in an omnibus spending agreement

Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., at a hearing in March.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., at a hearing in March. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted December 7, 2022 at 6:04pm

Senators this week questioned whether a recently proposed bipartisan immigration deal can pass before the end of the year, with no legislative text available for lawmakers to review and limited floor time in the lame-duck period.

Some lawmakers raised policy concerns with the compromise framework that would legalize roughly 2 million “Dreamers” in exchange for stronger border security. Others were concerned by the absence of concrete details.

But the biggest hurdle could be time. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., who is circulating the immigration compromise with Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., said Wednesday he doesn’t see the deal’s inclusion in an omnibus spending agreement.

The spending bill is the final must-pass legislation this Congress before Republicans take control of the House in January, and the amount of floor time left for the Senate to take up a stand-alone immigration proposal is quickly dwindling.

“I think it’s something that we would talk about, whether or not we have a window for chamber time to get it done,” Tillis told reporters. “I don’t think it’s a candidate for the omnibus.”

The stakes for the proposal are high. House Republicans are unlikely to embrace any immigration compromise when they control that chamber. Roughly 600,000 undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children face uncertainty as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program is challenged in court.

“I think if we’re not able to reach agreement on some of the more stringent border security issues this week, then it's difficult to see how we can get it done,” Tillis said in a brief interview Tuesday.

Details scarce

Several senators said they had not seen enough details on the plan to form a position or had not seen anything in writing. Others said they hadn’t been approached yet.

Democratic Sen. Alex Padilla of California, who chairs the Judiciary Committee’s immigration panel, said Tuesday the pair’s proposal has been mentioned to him but that he has “yet to see anything in writing.”

Republican Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma, who said he has “heard concepts” but has “not seen any text,” warned the lack of details this far into the year could derail efforts to strike a deal before the year’s end.

“It's two weeks before the end of the session, and we're talking about a major immigration proposal, with no prior planning, with no one else seeing it. I just don't see how there's time,” Lankford said. “Obviously, we can talk about a lot of things, but that's not gonna have time in this session.”

Sen. Bill Cassidy, the Louisiana Republican who broke with his party to vote to convict former President Donald Trump during impeachment proceedings, said he “has seen absolutely no detail.”

Republican Sen. Roy Blunt, who is retiring and has signaled interest in an immigration deal, indicated the devil could be in the details.

“I don’t have any concerns about the framework, but I may have some concerns about the details, which I haven't seen yet,” the Missouri Republican said Tuesday.

Republican votes needed

The draft proposal aims to bring Republicans on board through border security provisions, including a possible extension of asylum restrictions under the public health directive Title 42.

Assuming every Democrat supports the proposal, it would still need 10 Republican votes to overcome the filibuster-proof threshold of 60 votes in the Senate.

But many GOP lawmakers appeared skeptical that those 10 votes existed.

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., echoed the view of many conservative lawmakers that immigration compromise is impossible when illegal border crossings are historically high. Border patrol agents encountered migrants nearly 2.4 million times in fiscal 2022, the highest number on record, though that total includes some repeat encounters with the same migrants.

“What I'm not seeing is actually fixing the asylum system so you're not attracting more people,” Johnson said. “That's the first thing in immigration reform. We need to stop the flow. If we’re not stopping the flow, we can’t do anything else.”

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, who has worked across the aisle on major bills, said he would not yet consider himself a supporter and that it’s “going to have to be a different deal.”

While the proposal includes provisions to streamline asylum processing at the border, some Republicans want tougher asylum standards that would discourage migrants from making the journey north in the first place.

And many GOP lawmakers are unwilling to negotiate with Democrats when they blame the Democratic White House for rolling back stringent Trump-era immigration policies they say kept the border secure.

“Whoever’s sitting in the White House makes a decision on what happens at the border,” said Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala, who predicted there would not be 10 Republican votes for the proposal. “They’ve got it the way they want it. Why would they change it?”

Sinema and Tillis could also face resistance from more progressive Democrats wary of any efforts to restrict asylum access.

Sen. Bob Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey who has advocated for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, said he has “serious concerns” about the framework’s proposal to extend Title 42 border expulsions.