WASHINGTON — The first day of the Senate’s debate on immigration was quickly sidetracked by midterm campaign politics and tactics that led to no progress on a range of pressing issues that have stymied Congress for months.
Republicans’ opening salvo in the debate Tuesday had nothing to do with the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. Instead, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's first move was to take aim at so-called sanctuary cities, an issue that could force Democrats seeking re-election in Republican-leaning states into difficult votes.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., quickly objected to McConnell’s attempt to bring up an amendment by Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., that would hold back federal funding for cities that don’t report undocumented immigrants to federal authorities.
Sanctuary cities are not part of the four “pillars” that President Donald Trump required to be included in any legislation addressing DACA, the Obama-era program that temporarily protected recipients, known as "Dreamers," who were illegally brought to the U.S. as children.
But sanctuary cities is a politically divisive issue that can be effectively turned into campaign attack ads against lawmakers who support them, particularly in conservative districts or states.
Schumer said the immigration debate would be starting off on the “wrong foot” by introducing the issue.
“I was disappointed that the majority leader attempted to start voting today with an amendment that does absolutely nothing to address DACA, does absolutely nothing to address border security," Schumer said. "We need to be focusing on making laws that deal with those two issues, not making a point."
McConnell, R-Ky., defended the move, saying he can offer whatever amendment he’d like.
“We'll decide the order in which we offer ours, and I'm not trying to dictate to them the order they offer theirs,” McConnell told reporters.
Another measure that Republicans are expected to vote on, and potentially one of the first, is “Kate’s Law,” which would give undocumented immigrants who commit crimes a tougher sentence.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., is up for re-election in 2018 and called McConnell’s move “unfortunate.”
“There’s a chance (McConnell) intends to open with some poison pill amendment seeking to jam us, which would be a very unfortunate start to what was supposed to be a positive process,” Whitehouse said.
Policy has political ramifications and immigration is perhaps one of the most highly charged issues, especially because Trump effectively campaigned on security and safety aspects of it during the 2016 presidential election.
Trump's campaign arm released a fundraising plea Tuesday calling attention to another issue that Democrats are opposed to, but one that is part of the DACA discussion — ending the diversity visa lottery, which Trump called a “biased and dangerous” policy.
"A Washington attempt to ENGINEER the social fabric of our country, the 'diversity visa' IGNORES whether individuals are actually likely to contribute to American society and respect our country and customs," the campaign email says. The diversity lottery, however, is entered by millions of people a year from around the world and awarded to 50,000 recipients at random.
The Senate floor remained mostly empty throughout the day Tuesday as the clock ticked in a debate that Republican leaders hoped to finish by the end of the week — an aggressive timeline for what was billed as an open and “fair” amendment process to craft legislation from scratch.
Democrats say they have their own “poison pill” measures that they can introduce, but there’s no plans to introduce them as of now.
When Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., was asked what message McConnell was sending by opening the process with the sanctuary cities amendment, he paused for 12 seconds before answering.
“I don’t know what message it sends, but it’s the leaders’ view that he can offer whatever he wants to to start with and then Senator Schumer can start with whatever they want to next,” Blunt said. “It’s just a matter of whether or not they are willing to vote on some of these issues.”
Trump’s proposal addresses four areas: a path to citizenship for 1.8 million Dreamers, massive increases to border security, drastic limits to family-based migration, and an end to the diversity visa lottery. Sanctuary cities and Kate’s Law and other prospective amendments don’t fall into any of those categories.
But Republicans took issue with Schumer’s objections.
“Our Democratic friends shut down the government because of this,” Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., said. "Now here we are. Let’s get going."
Matt House, a spokesman for Schumer, said Democrats were still talking to senators in search of a bill that can get the support of 60 senators. But so far that legislation hasn’t emerged.
Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa and number of other Republicans introduced a measure that is similar to the president’s framework. It would provide 1.8 million Dreamers — nearly twice the number of DACA recipients but just half of the total number of Dreamers — with a path to citizenship in 10 to 12 years. It would provide $25 billion in border security and end family-based immigration to just spouses and children, a measure that is expected to cut legal immigration by up to 40 percent. It would also end the diversity visa lottery.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., introduced a pared down version of the Grassley-Trump proposal. Instead of ending family-based visas it reallocates them to skilled workers.
Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., called Flake’s movement toward the president’s position “a good sign.” But Democrats, who are needed to pass any legislation, haven’t come out in support of it.