Senate Democrats are starting to get behind a bipartisan immigration plan that could win over reluctant activists on the left — offering a chance for the party to coalesce after struggling for months to craft a workable strategy.
Democratic leaders on Tuesday sought a vote on a plan from Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.) that would create a path to citizenship for more than 1.8 million undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. It would also boost border security though without funding the border wall sought by President Donald Trump.
That approach is already a no-go with Trump and many Republican senators, but Democratic leaders are hopeful it will help set the terms of debate.
Some on the party’s left flank were open to the approach on Tuesday, even as others held out for a compromise that is more likely to win the 60 votes needed to clear the Senate.
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), one of several influential liberals who vowed to oppose funding the government absent a fix for the immigrants known as Dreamers, would support the McCain-Coons bill, her spokesman said Tuesday.
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), a vocal Dreamer advocate, also expects to back the McCain-Coons approach and counseled activists on the left to be open to compromise.
“I appreciate what Dreamers want — what I want is to guarantee that their dreams can be realized, and I’m going to look for a pathway to make that happen,” Menendez said.
“I don’t think anybody needs a Pyrrhic victory. We need 60 votes.”
After imploring Democrats to insist on tying aid for Dreamers to a must-pass legislative vehicle, a tactic that helped push the government into a three-day shutdown last month, liberal groups have stayed more muted on immigration so far this week. Activists on the left have focused their grassroots energy on forcing a vote on legislation known as the DREAM Act that only offers a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers, leaving little room for compromise on border security.
More than 250 liberal, labor, and civil rights groups released a letter Tuesday that outlines what they couldn’t support in a Senate bill, including multiple components of the White House framework, but its parameters didn’t rule out the McCain-Coons proposal. United We Dream, the activist group formed by and for Dreamers, criticized enforcement provisions in the McCain-Coons plan last week but stopped short of withholding its support.
“That is the only thing short of clean DREAM [Act] that any of us would expect,” one leading liberal organizer said, referring to activists on the left. “We’d rather Dems walk away than accept anything beyond that.”
It remains unclear if the McCain-Coons bill will even get a vote on the floor, as Senate leaders in both parties continue to clash over the terms for a debate that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) wants to wrap up this week.
And despite the proposal's potential to finally bring Democrats together on immigration, some in the caucus are still undecided. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) wouldn’t commit to backing the measure on Tuesday, but said it will merit strong consideration. Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) said that she first wants to see what sort of plan emerges from talks between a bipartisan group of mostly moderate senators.
“I think that’s probably the best bet,” she said in an interview. Duckworth said Democrats had "a very healthy debate" during their weekly caucus lunch Tuesday but had not yet united around a single plan.
That absence of a consensus within a party that clamored for time to debate the issue left Republicans befuddled.
“When you think about Democrats and DACA, think about Republicans and Obamacare,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters Tuesday. “They know what they’re against, but don’t know what they are for.”
Meanwhile, House Democrats have also struggled to formulate an immigration strategy since more than one-third of the caucus — 73 members — broke rank and voted for the budget deal last week. The House version of the McCain-Coons plan is authored by Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas), a Democratic target in November's election, and Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.).
Those Democrats defied requests from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and others in leadership to vote against the bill. But Pelosi was sending mixed messages ahead of the vote, telling colleagues why she was opposing the plan while also touting it as a “good” bill and highlighting the Democratic priorities in the proposal.
For Democratic lawmakers who had been fighting most ardently for Dreamers, the budget vote was a huge blow in which Democrats single-handedly gave away all of their leverage to drive House action on immigration.
“There were three leverage points at the very beginning — there was the budget and the [spending] caps. And there was the lifting of the debt ceiling and that’s already included,” said Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) “And the third one was disaster relief.”
All three issues were resolved in the budget deal.
Now House Democrats appear to be following a “hold your breath and hope” strategy. With little, if any, leverage at this point to force Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to take action, they’re relying on a risky combination: hope the Senate passes something and public pressure compels Ryan to act.
“Our leverage, frankly, is that we’re representing the overwhelming opinion of the American people. That ought to be a pretty strong impetus in the people’s House,” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said. “And I would hope that Speaker Ryan would want to reflect that view of the American people.”
But Ryan faces his own internal dissent from a rebellious group of conservatives who are all to happy to remind the speaker that he promised never to bring an immigration bill to the floor that didn’t have the support of a majority of Republicans. And Ryan has been loath to commit to any immigration bill, other than to say he would bring up for a vote whatever Trump supports — a moving target at best.
As Democrats continued to grasp for a unifying strategy, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus wrote to Senate leaders Tuesday calling for a narrow fix that secures deportation protections for Dreamers and border security funding — essentially the McCain-Coons approach.
Burgess Everett and Ted Hesson contributed to this report.