Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., right, and Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, conclude a news conference after the Republican Senate Policy luncheon in the Capitol on February 13, 2018.
Tom Williams—CQ-Roll Call,Inc.
By Nash Jenkins
February 13, 2018

It was supposed to be the start of something good: a rare open debate on the Senate floor in which lawmakers from both sides of the aisle could engage in dialogue to reach a compromise that would protect the millions of young immigrants whose protections are otherwise slated to expire in a few weeks. A chance for “a thousand flowers to bloom,” as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell put it last week.

But on Tuesday, one day into this supposed enlightened debate, the Senate floor was quiet. Instead, Republicans and Democrats in the upper chamber threw indirect barbs at each other via press releases and comments to reporters in the Capitol hallways, both sides accusing the other of refusing to cede ground towards compromise.

This is the state of the legislative battle over Dreamers, the roughly 700,000 immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children, whose fate has hung in the balance since President Donald Trump repealed the program preventing their deportation in September. Deciding on a legislative replacement for that program, the Obama-era executive system known as Deferred Action For Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, is the primary objective of the ongoing debate.

The debate comes after months of gridlock and procrastination on the issue in Congress. Last month, Senate Democrats, bitter over what they described as Republican recalcitrance on immigration, declined to vote on an urgent spending package as an act of protest, resulting in a three-day government shutdown. This week’s floor debate was seen as an mature and equitable means of addressing a deeply contentious political issue.

But public optimism about the chance to negotiate quickly curdled on Tuesday morning after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell proposed a vote on an amendment that would curtail federal funding to so-called “sanctuary cities.” His Democratic counterpart, Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, rebuffed the suggestion, calling instead for a vote on a bipartisan bill from Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Chris Coons of Delaware that would not fund Trump’s border wall.

And so the stalemate continued. In remarks to reporters after a weekly lunch of Republican senators on Tuesday, McConnell accused the Democrats of lethal stubbornness.

“Let me recount a little recent history that you’re all familiar with,” he said. “I believe it’s the case that we spent two or three months listening to the Democrats suggest that we shoehorn the DACA-immigration debate into a caps deal. They shut the government down over a weekend over the fact that we were not dealing with the DACA issue.”

“I’m ready to get started,” he continued. “This is the debate they said they wanted. I said we’d have an open and fair process. The sooner we get started, the better, because we’ll need to wrap this up this week. If there are 60 votes for any of these proposals here in the Senate, we should be able to discover that, because we’ve been talking about it for months.”

Schumer, meanwhile, said McConnell’s effort to discuss sanctuary cities “does absolutely nothing to address DACA [and] border security” and served only to “make a point.” In a notable concession, Schumer called on the Senate to consider the proposal set forth by Trump’s White House: one that provides a path to citizenship for Dreamers in exchange for strict border security and a tapering of so-called “chain migration.”

“It will give us an idea of the parameters and can set us moving,” Schumer said of considering the proposal. “It’s difficult. Finding 60 votes for something that meets the needs of both sides and can deal with the Dreamers and border security is not easy… We recognize that we’re not going to get everything that we want. We hope that the president and Republicans realize the same.”

Behind the scenes, lawmakers were working to stress-test various proposals. Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona has drafted a forthcoming amendment that will echo many points of the Trump proposal, but Flake has not yet brought it to the floor. As dusk approached Washington on Tuesday evening, there was little progress to report from the floor. Lawmakers from both parties were growing cynical.

“I personally think it’s time for justice for Dreamers, and I’m open to approaches in terms of funding border security,” Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, said. “But paying for $25 billion for a wall doesn’t make sense.”

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