Two days after the federal government reopened following a weekend shutdown over immigration policy, senators on Capitol Hill seemed to still be far from reaching a consensus on the fate of immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children.
The so-called Dreamers, beneficiaries of the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, face the loss of their protection from deportation in early March after President Donald Trump announced in September that it will end unless Congress acts.
Senate Democrats had demanded that permanent status for the Dreamers be addressed before they agreed to a continuing resolution to fund the government into February. Republicans insisted that immigration be dealt with separately from keeping the government open.
The standoff led to a 69-hour shutdown lasting from midnight Saturday to early evening Monday, before Democrats agreed to funding through Feb. 8 in exchange for assurances from Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., that he intends to take up the Dreamer issue before then or allow a vote on the Senate floor.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., expressed skepticism that McConnell will keep his word rather than kicking the issue down the road as lawmakers have in the past.
“You’ve got another one of these, ‘Well, let’s see what happens in the next few weeks,’” he said. “The track record particularly of Mitch McConnell on these matters is not too great.”
Wyden also criticized McConnell for setting up a “false choice” between protecting Dreamers and extending the Children’s Heath Insurance Program, which the continuing resolution reauthorized for six years.
“The false choice was you can either be for sick children or you could be for young people who have spent their entire lives in the United States and just want a path to citizenship,” he said.
President Trump has called for any legislation that gives Dreamers legal status to also include funding for a border wall and the elimination of extended-family-based immigration and the diversity lottery. He already rejected a bipartisan Senate proposal that the White House said did not provide enough concessions on those issues.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., had reportedly offered Trump authorization for the $20 billion the administration is seeking for the border wall in a bid to keep the government open last week, but Schumer said Tuesday the wall is now off the table.
“Oregonians told me they want us to be serious about roads and bridges and transportation systems,” Wyden said. “They want us to build schools, not walls.”
Given the brevity of the shutdown and the fact that most of it occurred over a weekend, Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, indicated its impact was likely minimal, but he still takes issue with the concept of one party holding the government hostage.
“Look, nobody likes it,” he said. “We were elected to govern, not to not govern…. The country wants governance and you need governance.”
He has sponsored a bill that would prevent shutdowns, with funding just continuing at the same levels if budget agreements are not reached and decreasing slowly over time.
Signaling the difficulty of crafting an immigration compromise palatable to both sides, Risch objected to dealing with the Dreamers’ status on its own, which is what Democrats would prefer.
“What I would say no to would be just a bill that nothing but give citizenship to the people that are here illegally,” Risch said. “All that does is work on the symbol, it doesn’t work on the problem.”
The problem, he added, is people coming to the country illegally, and new border security measures would prevent that. He also agrees with Trump that chain migration and the diversity lottery need to go, and he wants to see a guest worker program that benefits both businesses and foreign workers.
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., also called for a comprehensive approach that includes all of these elements.
“I think if we approach this problem of illegal immigrants who were brought here through no fault of their own, we need to be generous and humane but we have to be responsible as well,” he said.
According to Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., lawmakers are now working hard to find a bipartisan solution that treats the Dreamers fairly.
“They are American in any way that you can describe it, but many of them are going to deported if we don’t take action by March 5,” he said.
Though protections do ostensibly expire on March 5, Cotton pointed to a federal court ruling in California that has allowed the administration to start renewing DACA permits. The government is appealing that ruling, but absent a stay on the order, it currently provides a temporary reprieve.
“That’s not a good solution in the long term. We want a legislative solution, but that’s the status quo right now,” Cotton said.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, one of two Republicans to vote against the continuing resolution reopening the government Monday, said his opposition was meant to register disapproval with the process.
“This has got to change,” he said. “It’s never going to change as long as people vote yes for them.”
Without a functional budgeting process, he fears Congress will inevitably continue to find itself on the brink of shutdowns again and again, which is bad for the country and the government.
“This is something based on a concern that the American people are harmed and made more distant every time we do it this way,” he said.
As he has when faced with Senate gridlock before, President Trump tweeted out a demand that the chamber eliminate the legislative filibuster, which enables the minority to block bills that do not have the support of 60 members.
Wyden bluntly dismissed that suggestion.
“I think it was clear that was a non-starter,” he said. “You do that and all of a sudden you turn the U.S. Senate into a body without real debate.”
However, Risch observed that Democrats killed the filibuster for most appointments under Obama and Republicans nuked it for Supreme Court nominees last year. Getting rid of it, at least for government funding legislation, makes some sense to him.
“It’s becoming more and more apparent the majority party needs to be able to, with a 51-vote instead of a 60-vote, fund the government,” he said.
Risch added that this is something lawmakers have been discussing for a while.
“If the Republicans don’t do it, I have every confidence the Democrats are going to do it when they’re in charge,” he said.