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Senators fight partisan headwinds in pursuit of immigration deal

Both Republicans and Democrats work to find a compromise on the 'exceptionally difficult' topic

Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., is seen in the Capitol in June.
Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., is seen in the Capitol in June. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

When Sen. Thom Tillis returned to Washington this month from a visit to the U.S.-Mexico border with a bipartisan group of eight senators, the North Carolina Republican was quickly reminded of just how difficult it would be to craft a broad immigration agreement.

The new chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Freedom Caucus member Rep. Mark E. Green of Tennessee, called Tillis’ proposed immigration framework with Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz., “garbage” and “dead” just days into the new congressional session.

Tillis said this week he found it “confounding” that Republicans would choose to weigh in on an immigration proposal they had not even seen. He and Green, whom he described as “a reasonable guy,” just need to sit down together and share information better, he said.

“We’re going to try and get it on the calendar in the next month,” Tillis said Tuesday.

Tillis and other senators from both sides of the aisle, in interviews this week, discussed their search for a path forward to resuscitate bipartisan immigration efforts that have died time and time again over the past few decades and somehow finally achieve what several described as a difficult legislative long shot.

“You know, we can’t start by assuming that it will be impossible,” Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., who attended the border trip, said. “We have to start by believing it’s possible and put in the time and the effort to listen to each other.”

A potential path could involve House Republicans first passing a party-line border security bill. The Senate could then add language creating a path to citizenship for certain undocumented immigrants to that bill to gain enough bipartisan support to gain at least 60 votes, the minimum needed for most legislation to advance in that chamber.

Sen. John Cornyn of Texas said he has already asked fellow Texas Republican Rep. Chip Roy, who introduced a bill this year that would significantly restrict migration at the southwest border, if he would accept Senate additions to a border bill. Cornyn said the pair is currently “having that conversation.”

But Coons said the political realities of the House might even be more difficult this year than the last time a comprehensive immigration bill passed the Senate in 2013, when a group of eight Democrats and Republicans pushed a sprawling immigration package through the Senate, only to have it die in the Republican-controlled House.

“It is exceptionally difficult,” Coons said. “This has become a politicized and divisive issue.”

Democrat Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, a vocal proponent of immigration legislation, struck an even more pessimistic note.

House Republicans, whose cooperation would be needed to pass any bills in that chamber, are “pretty clear about their views on immigration, and none of it includes any pathways towards legalization or including other forms of what I would consider more positive immigration,” Menendez said.

“I’m open to any reasonable effort and compromise, but my own personal sense after having dealt with this for years, and most recently in the last Congress, is that Republicans want the issue more than they want a solution,” Menendez said.

Déjà vu?

The eight-person congressional delegation, which visited El Paso, Texas, and Yuma, Ariz., earlier this month and held roundtables to discuss openings for bipartisan action, recalled the bipartisan group of eight immigration negotiators 10 years ago. Then, just like now, Democrats controlled the Senate and Republicans controlled the House.

That so-called Gang of Eight successfully pushed an immigration deal through the Senate with a whopping 68 votes in the summer of 2013. The bill would have offered undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship, increased border security and revised work visa programs.

But then-House Speaker John A. Boehner refused to bring the Senate-passed bill to the floor, which allowed the legislation to die in his chamber and ushered in another decade of congressional inaction on the topic.

Six of the original eight are still in the Senate: Democratic Sens. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, Michael Bennet of Colorado, Charles E. Schumer of New York and Menendez, along with Republican Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

And the issue has only grown more urgent since. Record-high levels of migration to the border, combined with ongoing legal challenges to the so-called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that protects hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children, could offer a catalyst for a renewed effort this session.

A potential ruling against DACA could give Congress the deadline it needs to act, said Republican Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma, who also attended the border visit.

“That’s a good thing to be able to set some deadlines out there for Congress, because immigration has not been addressed because there’s not a deadline for addressing it,” Lankford said. “Everyone knows it needs to be done, but there’s no deadline to finish it, so there’s no pressure here to get it done.”

Lankford said he doesn’t see the eight senators who visited the border as a new “Gang of Eight,” saying the group “wasn’t really designed to go write a document.”

Cornyn also pushed back against reprising the “gang” label for the group of senators who visited the border but described them as “a group of serious people” who have “worked on some hard stuff and been able to achieve some success.”

He and other members of the group, including Sens. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., Tillis and Sinema, were instrumental in negotiating bipartisan gun safety legislation that passed last year despite similar long-shot odds.

‘More difficult’

But House Republicans have so far signaled little to no interest in passing a bipartisan immigration bill, and instead have focused on oversight hearings on border security. House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, R-La., said they plan to put together a “big border security package” that would go through the Judiciary and Homeland Security committees.

But there are some early indications of internal disunity on what that legislation should include. A vote on a border security bill previously touted by Scalise as “ready-to-go” was already delayed following opposition from several moderate Republicans.

Any legislation that heightened immigration enforcement without including any protections for immigrants would likely be a nonstarter with Senate Democrats.

And unlike in 2013, when House Republicans enjoyed a 33-member majority, Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., can lose no more than four votes, assuming full attendance, to pass party-line bills in the chamber.

“In some ways, it’s more difficult because the House Republican majority is so narrow. As we saw from 15 votes to confirm Speaker McCarthy as Speaker McCarthy, his majority relies on some folks who may not be inclined to compromise,” Coons said, referring to House Republicans’ multi-day battle earlier this month to elect a party leader.

Graham, the incoming ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, which handles immigration bills, was dismissive of Senate efforts to reach a deal and indicated the ball was in the House’s court.

“See what the House does on border security, then call me, OK?” Graham quipped.

Still, despite the political challenges, Senate members said they aren’t giving up. Coons described the 2013 immigration deal as “one of the best moments I’ve had in the Judiciary Committee.”

“It’s going to take a comparable effort this time, but I think it’s worth it,” Coons said. “We have to find a way forward.”

Durbin, a longtime champion of immigration legislation, said it “remains to be seen whether the eight [senators who traveled to the border] are a viable political force,” but that he is “still exploring opportunities” on immigration.

“We owe it to the American people to do our best to resolve the problems we have, and that does not mean ignoring the issue in the Senate,” said Durbin, who also serves as Democratic whip. “This is my committee jurisdiction, so I take it very personal.”

Green, the House Homeland Security chairman, said through a spokesperson on Thursday that he is “interested in conversations that lead to a secure border.”

“House Republicans made a commitment to America to secure our Southern border not provide mass amnesty. That’s what I’m focused on. It’s pretty simple: mass amnesty will not pass a House committee or the House floor,” Green said.

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