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Democrats haggling to get immigration changes into spending bill

The effort is a long shot but would not need Republican support.

WASHINGTON — Democrats are pushing to include the legalization of 8 million undocumented immigrants as part of the $3.5 trillion tax and spending bill being pushed through Congress.

It's a long-shot effort that attempts to use a workaround of congressional rules after years of negotiations between Democrats and Republicans have failed to find a consensus.

Democrats argue immigrants are essential to the economy and are pushing to provide legal status to several groups, including people who escaped natural or human-made disasters in their home country, farm workers, essential workers who helped during the pandemic and so-called Dreamers, those who were brought to the U.S. as children.

“In short, we would not be able to make it through this pandemic without millions of essential workers who are not citizens and we won’t be able to recover without them doing the essential work they’ve been doing in hospitals and nursing homes, in the fields and and crops every day,” said a Democratic aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the record. 

But their proposal might not make it into the massive spending bill currently being written by Congress. To pass the bill, Democrats are using specific set of Senate rules that allow passage of legislation with only 50 votes, which under current control means no Republicans are needed. But the rules only allow for provisions that have to do with spending and taxing, so Democrats are going to have to make the case that their immigration proposals qualify.

A group of Democratic staffers on Friday presented their case to the Senate parliamentarian, who decides what can go in a bill and what cannot.

The group of Democrats argued that the providing legal status to 8 million people would cost the government $139.6 billion over 10 years because they will be eligible for benefits, including the Affordable Care Act subsidies, Medicaid, refundable tax credits, food stamps and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, according to the aide.

Republicans have argued that the measure should not be included in the bill because the impact would be “incidental” to the budget. The Senate parliamentarian could make a recommendation as early as this weekend. 

Providing legal status to undocumented immigrants, especially Dreamers and farm workers, has been a major priority for Democrats but after two attempts at comprehensive immigration reform over the last 15 years, Congress has been unable to reach agreement. 

Democrats, controlling the House, Senate and White House, see the spending bill as their only chance because the bill can pass the Senate with 50 votes instead of  60 vote, allowing them to do so without Republican support.