Immigration Debate Starts As A Jump Ball In The Senate Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is launching an unpredictable process Monday, affording lawmakers the chance to bring any ideas to the floor. "Whoever gets to 60 [votes] wins," he said.
NPR logo Immigration Debate Starts As A Jump Ball In The Senate

Immigration Debate Starts As A Jump Ball In The Senate

Led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., senators are beginning debate on immigration legislation on Monday. It's anyone's guess what the outcome will be. Win McNamee/Getty Images hide caption

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Win McNamee/Getty Images

Led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., senators are beginning debate on immigration legislation on Monday. It's anyone's guess what the outcome will be.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

Updated at 6 p.m. ET

The Senate voted to begin debate on immigration Monday, launching an unusual process that could lead to a bipartisan immigration fix — or leave Congress with no solution for the hundreds of thousands of immigrants who stand to lose legal protections by March 5.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is leading the chamber down an unpredictable path. The goal is for the Senate to vote on immigration proposals and amendments from every corner of the political spectrum. Anything that can get 60 votes will pass; everything else will fall by the wayside.

Many in Congress have been craving such an open debate because it will give senators a chance to put their concepts and proposals to the ultimate legislative test. The plan carries a significant political risk that none of the ideas will have enough votes to pass, leaving Congress unable to fulfill its pledge to protect the roughly 700,000 people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

"Whoever gets to 60 wins," McConnell told reporters at a news conference on Feb. 6. He added, "There's no secret plan here to try to push this in any direction. The Senate is going to work its will, and I hope that we will end up passing something."

The hazy Senate process is expected to include votes on a wide range of proposals, including a version of a framework released in January by the White House. On Monday, McConnell threw his support behind that outline, which is being introduced in a bill by Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa; John Cornyn, R-Texas; and others.

"This legislation is a fair compromise that addresses the stated priorities of all sides," McConnell said.

That framework set out four pillars that the White House wants to see addressed in any legislation: legal status for DACA recipients, more spending on border security, ending the visa program that lets immigrants in the U.S. bring their family members over, and eliminating the diversity visa lottery.

Grassley called his bill a "compassionate compromise" and said if Democrats and others want to protect DACA recipients, they would support this plan endorsed by Trump.

"Are you interested in actually getting something done, in actually providing a path to citizenship for these DACA kids, or are you interested in a political issue for the 2018 elections?" Grassley posited on the Senate floor to his colleagues.

Even those senators who haven't supported the White House's position were optimistic about the process that was going to begin playing out.

"We're going to have something in the Senate that we haven't had in a while," said Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., on NBC's Meet the Press on Sunday. "It's a real debate on an issue where we really don't know what the outcome is going to be."

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Monday on the floor that "the key is to find a consensus bill, largely acceptable to a significant number of members of both parties" and cautioned Republicans against pressing for too much as they're up against such a critical DACA deadline.

"Democrats are fully committed to protecting the DREAMers, and we have long supported effective border security. Many Republicans are in the same boat. The only enemy to this process is overreach," Schumer said. "Now is not the time nor the place to reform the entire legal immigration system. Rather, this is the moment for a narrow bill. And every ounce of our energy is going into finding one that can pass."

Still, the outcome remains particularly uncertain because the Senate debate is just the start of a longer process of passing an immigration package. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has not yet said how the House will proceed beyond promising to vote on an immigration bill, so long as it has the support of President Trump.

That promise has Democrats and other critics worried that the House could block whatever the Senate is able to pass. Ryan addressed those critics last week, telling reporters that he plans to hold a vote on immigration.

"To anyone who doubts my intention to solve this problem and bring up a DACA and immigration reform bill, do not," Ryan said. "We will bring a solution to the floor, one the president will sign."

The White House has not weighed in on any of the legislative options, but Trump has insisted that any immigration bill also include funding for a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico.

The legislative rush comes after months of congressional inaction following Trump's announcement in September that the administration would stop renewing DACA applications in March. The program was created in 2012 by then-President Barack Obama to provide legal protections to immigrants who are in the country illegally after being brought here as children.

The program is currently caught in a court battle, but Congress has vowed to act before the deadline — giving it just three weeks to pass a bill.