Lindsey Graham introduced a bipartisan immigration bill 43 days ago. But if it came up on the Senate floor today, he wouldn’t support it.
“God, no,” the South Carolina Republican senator scoffed in an interview. “I’m not in support of legalizing one person until you’re in control of the border.”
Graham was one of four Republicans who took a massive political risk in 2013 and supported a comprehensive immigration bill with four Democrats, fending off poison pill amendments and shepherding the last major reform bill through the Senate. These days he’s a stalwart ally of former President Donald Trump who’s still talking with Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) about an immigration accord, giving Democrats whiplash as they wonder which version of Graham they’ll see at the negotiating table.
But beyond Graham, it’s not even clear the narrow DREAM Act he and Durbin so recently reintroduced could get a single Republican vote in the Senate — a big problem for Democrats who just pushed the immigration legislation through the House on Thursday. And that’s a microcosm of a larger problem for the Senate and President Joe Biden’s agenda: Though there’s a bipartisan group searching for a way to break the chamber’s gridlock, few Senate Republicans are leaping to help Biden on everything from minimum wage to infrastructure.
Several GOP senators remain interested in helping the Dreamer population of undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children, but they’re increasingly reluctant to do so amid a wave of cross-border migration.
“Many of us support giving a path to citizenship” to that population of mostly younger immigrants, said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the only Republican to support Biden’s Health and Human Services nominee on Thursday. “But now the border is such a disaster that I don’t see how you can do just a bill to deal with Dreamers.”
Republicans blame their lack of enthusiasm almost solely on the worsening situation on the southern border as illegal crossings increase amid a surge in unaccompanied minors. And as long as the Senate has a 60-vote threshold to pass most bills, the GOP disinterest in Biden’s policies is enough to put a deep chill on immigration reform in the 50-50 Senate.
When the bipartisan immigration alliance known as the Gang of Eight burst onto the scene in 2013, Durbin and Graham were joined by Sens. Chuck Schumer, Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). They started with an agreement on a pathway to citizenship, then reached a deal on border security and eventually won 68 votes, including 14 GOP senators. Such a gang is nowhere in sight this Congress.
“At this point, I don’t have four Republicans who are willing to make a commitment to the whole thing. Or to a pathway to achieve the whole thing,” Menendez said. “We’re not there yet. I’m not giving up.”
Putting aside that McCain and Flake are no longer in office and Rubio has shied away from the Senate’s past few years of fruitless negotiations, a new group of Republicans is theoretically in the mix for immigration talks. Sens. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), James Lankford (R-Okla.) and Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) are all mentioned by Democrats as potential partners.
Romney, Tillis and Lankford all said this week that a clean DREAM Act is not currently an option.
Durbin, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, said that his available roster of potential partners is slim in today’s GOP. His committee is filled with hardliners like Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who are almost certain to lead the charge against anything he can come up with.
“When you sit down and draw up the list of potential Republicans that might come on board, it is challenging. It isn’t like we have 20 and we got like the first 10. I wish,” Durbin said, lamenting that his DREAM Act is filibustered every time it comes up for a standalone vote. ”Trump really set the stage and said, ‘Immigration is going to be an issue for the future of the Republican Party. And we’re against it.’”
Graham’s not alone in now rejecting immigration legislation he previously supported while insisting on beefing up border security. Tillis once offered a 15-year pathway to citizenship for young people who entered the country illegally but said he couldn’t support that Republican proposal at the moment.
“There’s no scenario I would support even what we called the SUCCEED Act, which was a path to citizenship for the [Dreamers], without it being paired with border security," Tillis said, referring to the conservative alternative to the DREAM Act that he had endorsed.
It’s a return to the quagmire that’s flummoxed the Senate since the Gang of Eight bill passed in 2013 and was ignored by a House Republican majority. In 2018 the chamber rejected a bill pairing a citizenship pathway for young immigrants and border security, written by Rounds and Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), under intense opposition from Trump.
While the marriage of border security funding and help for the sympathetic Dreamer population sounds simple, that trade-off inevitably turns into a larger negotiation. Once things snowball enough, Senate talks no longer resemble a clean deal but instead verge on comprehensive immigration legislation.
"Comprehensive" itself has become “a dirty word” in immigration politics, said Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who is retiring in 2022. He opposed the sweeping bill in 2013 but wants to put something together before he leaves the chamber and is the GOP’s rare optimist when it comes to seeing the potential for a deal: “I do. But no one else does.”
Romney, Collins, Portman, Tillis and Rounds are part of the Senate’s so-called Group of 20, a bipartisan crew that’s given itself the daunting assignment of making the Senate work again, even as liberals eye gutting the filibuster over GOP opposition to their priorities — such as the DREAM Act. That group could be the venue for shaping an immigration deal, but its talks are only in the earliest stages and sprawl across an array of areas.
“I’m in the bipartisan group, but we haven’t touched it,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.). “There’s a problem that needs to be fixed, but I don’t think we’re anywhere near stepping up to it right now.”
There’s some hope for a thaw if the current bombardment at the border subsides. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said this week that crossings may reach a 20-year high, though Democrats believe that the current surge may subside after spring, when migration into the U.S. typically crests.
In addition, the House passed a second bill alongside the DREAM Act on Thursday that could find success, a bill that provides a pathway to legal status for about 1 million agricultural workers. Bennet and Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) subsequently announced they will introduce a companion to that bill, and several additional Senate Republicans mentioned it as a possible priority. The Dreamers measure won nine House GOP votes, while the farmworkers bill got 30 House GOP votes.
But other Republicans don’t even think they should project momentum in the Senate until they are actually ready to move. Another round of dithering, Lankford said, would only deepen the nation’s immigration mire.
“The concern is, as soon as you bring something up to even start discussing it, you’re going to get a surge,” Lankford said. “So if you’re not ready to really do it, you shouldn’t play with that. I don’t hear us ready to do it.”
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