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Democrats pursue ambitious immigration changes in $3.5 trillion budget measure

It's unclear what policy shifts will pass muster under Senate rules that would allow the party's senators to approve the measure without Republican support.
Sen. Bob Menendez speaks during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Capitol Hill on Dec. 3, 2019.
Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said Democrats will seek to use the measure to allow a path to legalization and green cards for certain "Dreamers," farmworkers, essential workers and people on Temporary Protected Status.Caroline Brehman / AP

WASHINGTON — Democrats are making an ambitious attempt to muscle through changes in the immigration system in a sprawling $3.5 trillion economic package.

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., the lead author of a sweeping immigration bill that reflects President Joe Biden's vision, said Thursday that Democrats are exploring immigration changes worth $120 billion in the budget reconciliation measure, which can pass without Republican support.

Menendez said Democrats will seek to allow a path to legalization and green cards for certain "Dreamers," farmworkers, essential workers and people on Temporary Protected Status.

"That's not everything that my U.S. Citizenship Act would do, but it would be a very big down payment," he said, adding that the goal is "to be as expansive as we can on immigration reform."

Democrats face serious obstacles. All 50 senators who vote with the Democrats, along with a majority of the House, would have to agree to any policy changes for them to become law.

And Menendez conceded that it is unclear what measures the Senate parliamentarian would allow under the "Byrd rule," which restricts the reconciliation process to changes in spending and taxes.

"How far do we want to go? We want to go as far as we can, assuming the parliamentarian allows it to happen," Menendez said. "It has tremendous budget effects. It will provide revenue to the federal Treasury because of the fees and taxes people will pay. It will also have some costs."

Others say immigration changes would be merely "incidental" to the budget process and therefore invalid under the rules of the process, which can bypass a filibuster.

"Reconciliation is designed as a budget thing and not necessarily a policy issue. So I think they're going to have a very difficult time getting immigration in," said Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., who worked with Democrats on compromise immigration legislation in 2018.

With Republicans rallying against liberalizing the immigration system and calling for tougher enforcement at the border, Democrats have few other avenues. The budget bill may be Biden's best — if not only — opportunity to deliver on some of his immigration campaign promises. If Democrats fail, they can tell their base they tried and blame the parliamentarian.

Senate Democrats will direct the Judiciary Committee to determine how many undocumented immigrants could receive legal status based on the cost of processing claims and the impact on gross domestic product. Two aides cautioned that the $120 billion amount could change in the coming days.

A source familiar with the process said that the parliamentarian may limit the "size and scope" of how many immigrants the bill would be able to reach but that Democrats are determined to cover at least some groups.

Defining which workers qualify as "essential" is one sticking point as the lawmakers decide how far they can go.

And there is no guarantee of success.

"That's going to be up to the parliamentarian — what's in there. We'll leave that to her discretion," said Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev. "And then, based on that, we'll decide where the appropriate place is for it."

Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., said he would need to review the details of immigration changes when asked whether he would support including them in the reconciliation bill.

"I've got to look at what they are," he said.

Bennet's office later added that the senator would be "very supportive of moving immigration measures forward in any way we can," including in this bill, but that it would depend on how the parliamentarian rules.

Democrats face the challenging task of crafting immigration language that can survive the Byrd rule.

"That's a work in progress," Menendez said.