Immigration reform is taking center stage on Capitol Hill, as lawmakers grapple over an elusive legislative solution to save up to 1.8 million Dreamers facing deportation.
While the newly-minted bipartisan spending agreement extends government funding until March 23, the absence of an immigration bill on the president’s desk could prompt a Democratic revolt and lead to another shutdown next month.
After the Senate passed the bipartisan spending agreement in the early hours of Friday morning, McConnell began the procedural steps to begin an immigration debate next week.
Now, Democrats are closely watching House Speaker Paul Ryan for his next move on immigration reform.
The Senate is expected to act before and independently of the House, where Speaker Paul Ryan has promised lawmakers he’d tackle a solution for DACA recipients upon successful package of the spending deal.
Ryan and other GOP leaders insist that a House bill address four pillars of reform – ending the diversity visa lottery, terminating chain migration, beefing up border security and settling on a solution for Dreamers facing deportation.
The White House has instructed Congress to work out the details, though the president’s own framework includes appealing aspects to Democrats, such as a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers.
Ryan also stressed that the bill must be “one that the president will sign” into law. That’s been a nebulous qualifier that’s riled Democrats. Ryan says it’s a commonsense standard to avert a potential presidential veto.
“I want to make sure that we get it done right the first time. I don't want to just risk a veto. I want to actually get it done the first time and I think we can get there,” Ryan, R-Wisconsin, said. “I'm confident we can bring a bipartisan solution to the floor that can get signed into law and solve this problem. We want a DACA solution. We want an immigration solution. I'm confident we can get there.”
Two Democrats on opposing ends of the vote explained their contrasting perspectives on Ryan’s pledge to move to immigration next.
“The fact that the Speaker just cannot give us a firm commitment on a vote on the Dreamers, something that Mitch McConnell seemed to be willing to do,” Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Michigan, said, explaining why he voted no. “The Speaker just really did not give the kind of assurance we need.”
But California Democratic Rep. Jim Costa, one of the few surviving Blue Dog Democrats left in Congress, told me that he believes Ryan’s pledge, so he felt comfortable voting in favor of the deal. “When the Speaker closed, he clearly indicated that it was his intention to address the DACA issue and I'm going to hold him to his word, and I hope that he keeps his word,” Costa said.
Although Ryan publicly stressed his “commitment to working on immigration is a sincere commitment,” Kildee isn’t buying it and blasted the speaker and President Trump’s trustworthiness. “It's really up to [Ryan] to determine whether he's going to be a man of his word,” Kildee said. “You know, saying that we'll take up immigration is one thing; actually putting something on the floor is something else. What we've learned from this president and unfortunately from the Speaker is that words are cheap. You know, actions speak louder than words.”
There are several options on the legislative field for lawmakers to consider, including a bipartisan bill favored by Democratic leaders that’s sponsored by Reps. Pete Aguilar (D-California) and Will Hurd (R-Texas), and the Goodlatte bill preferred by the bulk of House Republicans.
Aguilar and Hurd’s bill, H.R. 4796, the USA Act of 2018, has 27 Republican cosponsors, as well as 27 Democratic cosponsors.
Problem Solvers Caucus also introduced framework for another option last month that plucks various ideas from other legislative proposals, but has not yet been turned into legislative text.
House Majority Leader Steve Scalise expressed support for the Goodlatte bill, which Democrats complain is not bipartisan.
“We've been working on that for a while now and obviously we're trying to move forward on the Goodlatte bill,” Scalise, R-Louisiana, told ABC News as he left the Capitol following Friday morning’s vote on the spending deal.
The so-called No. 2s in the House and Senate – Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) and Reps. Kevin McCarthy (R-California) and Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland) – have worked for weeks with Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen and White House chief of Staff John Kelly on a separate bipartisan solution, though those negotiations stalled during the shutdown showdown.
Kelly told reporters that he doubted the March 5 deadline would be extended by the White House – directly contradicting President Trump’s earlier openness to pushing back the target.
"What makes [Congress] act is pressure,” Kelly said. “I would certainly advise against it. I would advise against it. I’m not the president. But any time you give this institution time, they’ll take it.”