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Immigration Measures Fail in Senate

19 Feb

By Kristina Peterson and Siobhan Hughes, The Wall Street Journal

WASHINGTON—The Senate failed to break its impasse over immigration Thursday after a week of debate, as a flurry of unsuccessful votes left the chamber no closer to resolving the fate of hundreds of thousands of young, undocumented immigrants.

Both an immigration measure backed by President Donald Trump and a bipartisan proposal opposed by the president came up short in the Senate on Thursday afternoon. Two other amendments also failed. With no consensus on a long-term solution in sight, senators said they might try to attach to a spending bill next month a short-term patch shielding the young immigrants, known as Dreamers.

“The clock’s still ticking,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R., Texas) told reporters. “I’d rather do a permanent bill, but if we can’t do that, maybe we need to do something shorter.”

Lawmakers have been feuding since September, when Mr. Trump ended an Obama-era program, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, but gave Congress until March 5 to pass its replacement. DACA protects young immigrants from deportation and allows them to temporarily work legally in the U.S.

Federal judges have blocked the administration from winding down the DACA program for now. The Justice Department is appealing those rulings. The Supreme Court could announce as early as Friday whether it will take up the issue. Some Republicans say these court rulings mean lawmakers have more time to continue negotiations.

Some senators suggested Thursday they might be able to craft a narrow immigration measure that extending the DACA program for several years and adding money for border security, which they hope to tuck into a spending bill Congress is expected to pass next month. The government’s current funding expires after March 23.

Sen. Jeff Flake (R., Ariz.), who voted for the bipartisan plan, said he planned to immediately file legislation to extend the DACA program for three years and provide three years of border-security funding for a total of $7.9 billion.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), who had worked on the bipartisan plan but ultimately voted against it, said he was crafting a measure that would provide DACA participants with permits subject to renewal every two years, along with some border-security measures.

“I still believe we’re going to get something done this year,” Mr. Rubio said, pointing to the number of Republicans who voted Thursday to support a path to citizenship for the Dreamers, a feature of both the bipartisan plan and the Trump proposal.

“More Republicans than ever have voted for giving citizenship to people in this country illegally,” Mr. Rubio said. “That’s a sea shift from where we were a few years ago.”

But a short-term extension likely wouldn’t provide a path to citizenship, leaving the young immigrants with less certainty than many lawmakers and advocate groups had hoped. Moreover, Mr. Trump has said he doesn’t want a short-term deal.

“Today, the Senate reached for a bipartisan deal, and President Trump made sure it did not happen,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, an immigrants’ rights group.

“Today, while some brave Republicans stood up and were counted, most Republican members of the Senate obeyed their President rather than rising to the occasion,” he added.

Mr. Trump and lawmakers tangled over what policy components must be included in an immigration package. The president has said legal protections for the Dreamers must be paired with tighter border security, including funding for a wall, as well as curbs to the family-based migration system and an end to the diversity visa lottery, which admits 50,000 people chosen at random from countries that are underrepresented.

The bipartisan measure, hashed out by a coalition of centrist senators over weeks of meetings, and introduced Wednesday night by Sens. Mike Rounds (R., S.D.) and Angus King (I., Maine), would have provided a 10-to-12 year path to citizenship for 1.8 million Dreamers, according to their estimates. Critics have said the pool would be larger.

The bill’s sponsors sought to bar Dreamers from sponsoring their parents from citizenship. A Homeland Security Department official said the provision that would have blocked Dreamers from sponsoring a parent who “knowingly assisted” his or her child in entering the U.S. illegally would have been impossible to administer.

The bipartisan bill wouldn’t have significantly cut legal immigration, aside from a provision that would block legal permanent residents from petitioning the government for visas for unmarried adult children until the residents themselves become citizens. That affects a population of about 26,000 people each year, lawmakers said.

Senators said Wednesday that their proposal would preserve the diversity visa lottery program. It garnered 54 votes, including eight Republicans, with 45 opposed, but was short of the 60 votes needed to proceed. Three Democrats opposed it.

Mr. Trump had sought more dramatic cuts to legal immigration by restricting the ability of American citizens and permanent residents to sponsor relatives for green cards. His proposal would have reduced legal immigration by a third, according to nonpartisan estimates, and faced resistance from both Democrats and Republicans.

A bill reflecting his requests failed Thursday, with 39 votes in favor, and 60 against, including 14 Republicans.

The administration said Thursday that the bipartisan measure fell short of what Mr. Trump had spelled out and that he would likely veto it if it passed.

“Voting for this amendment would be a vote AGAINST law enforcement, and a vote FOR open borders,” tweeted Mr. Trump, just ahead of the vote.

Democrats and some of the Republicans involved in crafting the bipartisan proposal said Mr. Trump’s opposition helped sink it Thursday.

“All these veto threats and bombastic rhetoric coming out of the White House against 18 or 20 senators that are trying to solve the problem is not helpful,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), who supported the bipartisan bill.

“If the president had simply stayed on the side, I think this easily would have got 60 votes,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D., Del.), who also backed the bipartisan measure.

The White House late Thursday blamed Democrats for the stalemate and the failure of the Trump plan.

“Today, the Schumer Democrats in the Senate demonstrated again that they are not serious about DACA, they are not serious about immigration reform, and they are not serious about homeland security,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement.

Lawmakers in both chambers left Washington Thursday evening for a week of recess aligned with the President’s Day holiday. House GOP leaders have been talking with Republicans about bringing up a more conservative immigration bill from House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R., Va.), but it faces opposition from more centrist Republicans. Both the House and Senate would need to pass a bill to get it to President Trump’s desk.

Dejected by the fruitless week, some frustrated senators said the immigration votes showed the limits of the chamber’s ability to work in a bipartisan fashion.

“We worked in a bipartisan way to expand spending by hundreds of billions of dollars,” Mr. Flake said, referring to the recent budget deal. “It seems the only thing we can do on a bipartisan basis is spend more money than we have.”