New bipartisan immigration plan surfaces in the Senate and Trump labels it a ‘a total waste of time’

Feb 06, 2018
  • By Ed O'Keefe
  • The Washington Post
Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
In this Jan. 30, 2018 file photo, President Donald Trump delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington. It's beginning to look like Congress' election-year battle over immigration could end up in stalemate or a narrowly focused bill. The kind of broader measure that Trump has proposed is running into trouble. The reasons: Deep gaps between the two parties, internal divisions particularly among Republicans and political incentives that might leave each side content with a minimal compromise or even nothing at all.

Talks to resolve the legal status of young undocumented immigrants and enact new border security measures remain stalled in the closely-divided Senate Monday as a new bipartisan proposal to resolve the impasse was dismissed by the White House as insufficient. 

The proposal by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Christopher Coons, D-Del., would grant permanent legal status to undocumented immigrants known as "dreamers" and start bolstering security along the U.S.-Mexico border. It copies a plan already introduced in the House that has 54 co-sponsors from both parties. But President Trump tweeted that the idea is a "total waste of time" because it doesn't immediately authorize spending the billions to build new barriers along the border.

Trump announced in September that he would end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program (DACA) on March 5, giving Congress six months to enact a permanent solution. Attempts to do so have sputtered so far and contributed to forcing a three-day partial government shutdown last month. 

In his tweet Monday, Trump added that "March 5th is rapidly approaching and the Dems seem not to care about DACA. Make a deal!" 

McCain and Coons introduced their measure believing that the only potential deal in the Senate is a narrow one focused on legalizing "dreamers" and authorizing the Department of Homeland Security to draw up a comprehensive southern border plan. 

Coons said his proposal with McCain could be a "fresh start" and a "strong starting place" for the Senate's upcoming debate. In Senate speak, he described it as "a good base bill" - legislation that could be used to launch the immigration debate, be amended with other proposals and earn an up-or-down vote. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has vowed to permit votes on immigration legislation this month as part of the agreement to reopen the government - but he has not yet said which bill he will use to begin the debate, how long the debate will run and what kinds of amendments will be permitted. 

McCain, who is battling Stage 4 brain cancer, remains in Arizona and isn't expected in Washington this week. In a statement, he said the bill "would address the most urgent priorities" of legalizing the status of dreamers and make changes to border security — and allow Congress to move on. 

"It's time we end the gridlock so we can quickly move on to completing a long-term budget agreement that provides our men and women in uniform the support they deserve," he added. 

The McCain-Coons plan is the Senate version of the USA Act, introduced last year by Reps. Will Hurd, R-Texas, and Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., with a total of 54 co-sponsors — 27 members from each party. The bill has been fodder for conversations between Trump administration officials and senior congressional leaders trying to set the contours of a potential immigration debate. 

Like the House version, the new Senate bill would grant legal status to dreamers who have been in the country since 2013 — a larger pool of undocumented immigrants than the 1.8 million Trump supports legalizing.

The measure would not immediately authorize spending the $25 billion Trump is seeking to fortify the border with new wall and fence construction. Some Republicans are seeking at least $30 billion. 

Rather, the legislation would immediately authorize using more technology and drones to monitor some border areas, but also require the secretary of homeland security to submit a southern border security strategy within a year. The plan would need to include a projected cost per mile for any changes. 

The bill says nothing about curbing family-based legal migration or making changes to the diversity visa lottery program — two other priorities for Trump and conservative Republicans. 

Asked about the idea, White House legislative affairs director Marc Short told reporters Monday at the Capitol, "I don't think it's ever going anywhere." 

"It's not sufficient" Short said as he called on lawmakers to use Trump's demands as the starting point. 

Sponsoring this immigration measure is a stark departure from McCain's previously aggressive stance on border security. During his 2010 reelection campaign, he vowed to "complete the danged fence" across Arizona's span with Mexico. In 2013, he was a lead GOP negotiator on a bipartisan immigration bill with a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million immigrants here illegally. The bill passed overwhelmingly in the Senate but stalled in the House. 

Coons has been an eager participant in recent bipartisan talks to end a partial government shutdown and broker a compromise on immigration policy. He told reporters that "a broader solution" introduced by Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., is one possible compromise for senators to support, but said that Trump's "unconstructive engagement" with Durbin and Graham on the issue means that their bill "may not be feasible." 

Trump, Durbin and Graham clashed in an Oval Office meeting last month when the president dismissed some of their potential proposals and labeled some African nations and Haiti as "sh------ countries" - comments that roiled Washington for several days and contributed to a partial government shutdown.