After months of shuffling its feet and weeks of rancorous bipartisan bickering, the U.S. Senate failed to meet its self-imposed deadline on Thursday to pass a law protecting the several million immigrants who arrived in the country unlawfully as children. The fate of these immigrants, known as Dreamers, is now uncertain.
It was the profoundly anticlimactic culmination of what was supposed to have been a freewheeling, honest-to-God debate on the Senate floor: a rare thing in this balkanized political moment, an opportunity for lawmakers from both parties to reach a compromise on what is perhaps the most visible issue of the Donald Trump presidency.
Since Trump repealed Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, the Obama-era executive program that shielded the young immigrants, in September, Democrats have clamored for a legislative fix, going so far as to deny a vote on a spending package last month as an act of protest, resulting in a weekend-long government shutdown. But now, perhaps, things could be different.
“The Senate’s going to work its will,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell predicted last week. “It will be an opportunity for a thousand flowers to bloom.”
But the promise of bipartisan dealmaking quickly proved illusory. The White House soon made it clear that it would not support any law that fell short of Trump’s comprehensively conservative proposal: one that would provide a path to citizenship to 1.8 million immigrants in exchange for $25 billion in funding for a southern border wall and rigid new restrictions on legal immigration into the U.S. This plan appeared on the Senate floor in the form of an amendment sponsored by Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa — one of four amendments that were considered on Thursday as potential fodder for an immigration reform package. None of them passed.
It is a marked defeat for Trump, and a testament to the pitfalls of his capriciousness. Just last month, he told a bipartisan group of lawmakers that he would sign any immigration reform bill to hit his desk, promising to “take the heat.” But this week, his White House pledged to reject a comprehensive bipartisan proposal that they said would “undermine the safety and security of American families.” (That proposal in fact offered many concessions to Trump’s demands, including billions in funding for border security. It was also considered by many senators to be the chamber’s best hope.)
“This vote is proof that President Trump’s plan will never become law,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement after Thursday’s votes. “If he would stop torpedoing bipartisan efforts, a good bill would pass.”
The future of immigration reform, and of the Dreamers, is uncertain. Both chambers of Congress are slated to begin a weeklong recess this weekend; when they return, there will be just a week until the protections offered by DACA are set to expire. And any legislation that does pass the Senate will invariably get snagged in the House, where conservative Republicans are clamoring for nothing less than a facsimile of Trump’s proposal.
Thursday’s failed votes reveal a growing rift between Trump and the members of his own party in Congress. After the Department of Homeland Security issued a statement denouncing the bipartisan immigration proposal, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Republican who often golfs with Trump, lashed out at the agency.
“Instead of offering thoughts and advice — or even constructive criticism — they are acting more like a political organization intent on poisoning the well,” Graham said in a statement.
The White House, in return, accused Graham of being an “obstacle to immigration reform.”
Suffice it to say that morale was low on Capitol Hill on Thursday evening. “I think it’s safe to say it’s been a disappointing week,” McConnell said on the Senate floor shortly after the votes.