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Senate Republicans throw cold water on Biden's immigration proposal

The resistance includes Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham, the two remaining GOP authors of the "Gang of Eight" overhaul in 2013.
Republican Senators Hold Press Conference On Democrat \"Court-Packing Plan\"
Chairman of the Judiciary Committee Sen. Lindsey Graham, speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill on Oct. 21, 2020.Stefani Reynolds / Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden's sweeping immigration plan ran into quick resistance from key Senate Republicans, including some who championed a similar effort eight years ago.

Immigration activists widely praised the legislative proposal, but senior Senate aides in both parties expressed skepticism that it has a path, at least without major changes, to winning the 60 votes needed to defeat a filibuster, which means at least 10 GOP votes.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a key figure in the "Gang of Eight" overhaul in 2013 that passed the Senate but died in the Republican-controlled House, called it a nonstarter.

"There are many issues I think we can work cooperatively with President-elect Biden, but a blanket amnesty for people who are here unlawfully isn't going to be one of them," he said in a statement Tuesday, the day before Biden was sworn in.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he doubts Biden's plan can pass, describing it as "to the left" of the 2013 legislation that he helped craft, citing fewer provisions to beef up border security.

Graham, who took on a more hard-right posture during the Trump administration, said the most likely endgame is a smaller deal centered on codifying the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which President Barack Obama set up unilaterally.

"I think probably the space in a 50-50 Senate would be some kind of DACA deal," Graham said Thursday. "Comprehensive immigration is going to be a tough sell given this environment, but doing DACA, I think, is possible."

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Rubio and Graham are the two remaining GOP members of the group that crafted the 2013 bill, making their resistance a significant warning for Biden. His plan would grant an eight-year path to citizenship to the estimated 11 million people who are in the U.S. illegally after they pass background checks and pay their taxes, while linking green cards to economic conditions and easing asylum restrictions.

In a symbolic recognition of the U.S. as a nation of immigrants, Biden's plan would also change the word "alien" to "noncitizen" in the context of immigration law.

Of the 13 Republican senators who voted for the 2013 immigration bill, just five remain: Rubio, Graham, John Hoeven of North Dakota, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. It was produced after Obama's re-election victory, when many Republican elites decided that the party needed to embrace a more liberal immigration policy. But Donald Trump upended the calculation in his 2016 presidential campaign, which mobilized conservative voters around an anti-immigration platform.

The Senate GOP's campaign arm, which is focused on recapturing the majority in 2022, quickly dubbed Biden's immigration plan "amnesty and open borders."

Even if all 50 Democrats unite, finding 10 Republicans for the bill would be a daunting task.

"I don't think I can even count to one," said a senior GOP aide who wasn't authorized to speak about the plan's prospects, arguing that the path to citizenship is "an issue" for Republicans.

The aide suggested that Biden's plan was an attempt to placate progressives, not a "take it or leave it" product. Adding border provisions could help, but it may not be enough, the aide said.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., tore into Biden's plan Thursday, calling it "a massive proposal for blanket amnesty that would gut enforcement of American laws while creating huge new incentives for people to rush here illegally at the same time."

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., said he has "very serious concerns" about Biden's immigration policy. He is holding up a Senate vote to confirm Alejandro Mayorkas to be secretary of homeland security, saying Mayorkas should first explain how he would enforce immigration laws.

Sens. Tim Scott, R-S.C., and Ben Sasse, R-Neb., said Thursday that they will study the plan more closely before commenting.

Among Democrats in both chambers, Biden's plan was met with wide praise.

"I personally would support all of the elements in it," said Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii.

Some Democrats want to make the plan more progressive.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., called the proposal "very, very strong," but she said she wants more provisions related to detention of immigrants.

"It's so wonderful to have a president who is finally looking at immigrants in a positive light," she said.

And if Republicans block the bill in the Senate?

"Reform the filibuster if Republicans are refusing to go along," Jayapal said.

A senior Democratic staffer said Republicans don't appear to have the political appetite for a broad immigration overhaul, saying: "I don't know where you would start to find 10."

The staffer said a filibuster of immigration overhaul, as well as other Democratic priorities, like protecting voting rights, would elevate a debate inside the party about abolishing the 60-vote rule.