Immigration state of play: 48 hours of Senate debate to go

The World's Greatest Deliberative Body (the US Senate) has had a bang-up start to its "freewheeling debate" over immi...

Posted: Feb. 14, 2018 2:52 PM
Updated: Feb. 14, 2018 2:53 PM

The World's Greatest Deliberative Body (the US Senate) has had a bang-up start to its "freewheeling debate" over immigration, with battles over process and which amendment votes destined to fail get taken when. But here's the key point, according to several senior aides: ignore all of that. It's noise.

Bottom line: The pathway(s) to 60 votes are all being formed behind the scenes right now. A lot needs to change in the current posture for a true resolution to come to the forefront. These next 48 hours will make or break that effort.

Does a proposal exist that can get 60 votes: Not yet.

What to watch Wednesday:

- Senate comes into session at 10 a.m. ET

- House GOP leadership press conference 10 a.m.

- Senate votes to move forward on immigration debate 10:30 a.m.

- Senate likely to set up amendment votes after the 10:30 a.m. vote

The big picture:

Some important context here, according to several aides involved in this process: there is this broad assumption that the solution, if one is to exist, is whatever a bipartisan group of moderates comes up with in the next day or so. That will take the key elements of the White House proposal, soften them on several fronts (most notably on family migration) and find some broad 65-68 vote consensus.

Here's the thing missing from that: the White House, according to officials, firmly believes they've already made the compromise (on pathway to citizenship) and a fairly sizable group of Senate Republicans -- and an even larger group of House Republicans -- agree with that perspective. They've put something else on the table, according to officials: eliminating the cuts to legal immigration in their proposal, and instead moving the visas eliminated through the ending of the diversity visa program and family migration into other categories.

Is the President really going to veto a DACA solution that gets to his desk? That's not the operative question. The President has to actively get behind something the Senate passes for it to have any chance in the House. All he has to do is show his distaste, or disinterest, in any Senate compromise, and it dies.

In other words: there really is no clear path to a DACA resolution right now, beyond Democrats moving toward the White House proposal (Never. Going. To. Happen.), or the President moving firmly off his. For some reason Democrats believe the latter will happen. But ask them why. The answers aren't great.

Is the slow start an ominous sign?

Not really. The bottom line is this -- Majority Leader Mitch McConnell promised an open debate. He didn't make any promises to limit what amendments he'd put forward. Well, an open debate means McConnell can bring up one (or many) very difficult political votes for red state Democrats up in 2018.

Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer obviously wants to avoid those to the extent he can. So here we are.

The behind the scenes here is Democrats don't want things to really move forward until they have something they think can get 60 votes. They don't have that yet, so blocking amendments procedurally is likely to continue to some extent.

Reminder:

Things move very slow in the Senate until they don't. When things start to move, they will move quickly.

Is the week-only debate timeline a problem:

Not really. In speaking with Democrats, they largely (at this point) agree with McConnell: these issues have been discussed for years. If a proposal that can get 60 votes exists, it can be figured out in a week. Don't discount the fact that Democrats want a hard deadline on this, too. As one aide put it to me: "We have to pin down the moderate Republicans somehow, and a deadline is the best way to do it."

The bipartisan sticking point(s):

The bipartisan moderate conversations -- the great Democratic hope as it is -- have been kept closely held, but multiple sources say it really does all come down to the family migration issue, most notably, what to do with the parents of the DACA eligible individuals. There is an agreement to limit the family migration restrictions to just the DACA population (as opposed to the entire immigration system, as the President proposes), but how to specifically handle the parents of that population remains a very sticky issue, aides say.

Find a compromise that works for the moderate Republicans on that issue, and things likely unlock. At several points Tuesday there was optimism things were headed in the right direction, then that seemed to level off, then back again, senators said.

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