Red State Democrats Sink Anti-Sanctuary Cities Bill

In Series of Votes, Senate Rejects Three Proposed Immigration Fixes

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer / Getty Images
February 15, 2018

The Senate returned to square one on immigration Thursday afternoon, rejecting three proposed plans to resolve the plight of recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and address the future of America's immigration system.

The whirlwind round of voting was prompted by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.), who announced that he would allow open debate on the Senate's floor to see what plan, if any, could reach the requisite 60 vote threshold to invoke cloture and pass the Senate. Congress is racing against the upcoming March 5 deadline, after which DACA recipients will begin to lose the protections which President Donald Trump revoked last year.

In the wake of the news that McConnell would entertain open debate, a number of plans emerged, including a hardline proposal that implemented the White House's four-pillar plan for immigration reform, and several bipartisan proposals.

But on Thursday, all of those plans were struck down in quick succession. First up was the proposal by Sens. John McCain (R., Ariz.) and Chris Coons (D., Del.), which would have given amnesty to DACA recipients in exchange for tightened border security, while omitting reforms to chain migration, the diversity visa lottery, and the construction of a border wall. That bill, which the White House officially opposed Thursday, failed to achieve cloture by a vote of 52 to 47.

Up next was a bill authored by Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.). Unlike the other three, Toomey's bill was not focused on resolving the DACA issue, but instead aimed at restricting federal funds to so-called sanctuary cities, which refuse to enforce federal immigration laws within their jurisdiction. That vote failed 54 to 45, picking up the Democratic backing of Sens. Joe Donnelly (Ind.), Joe Manchin (W. Va.), Claire McCaskill (Mo.), and Debbie Stabenow (Mich.). All four are considered prime Republican targets in 2018.

Third in line was a compromise bill, negotiated within a caucus led by Sen. Susan Collins (R., Maine), and officially sponsored by Sens. Mike Rounds (R., S.D.) and Angus King (I., Maine). That bill would have legalized some 1.8 million immigrants, in line with the administration's proposals, in exchange for a border security trust fund and reallocating the diversity lottery visas and some chain migration visas to a new merit-based migration category.

Critics of the Rounds-King bill attacked it for potentially creating an amnesty for up to 10 million people through a legal loophole, as well as creating a de facto four-month immigration enforcement holiday. The bill went down 54 to 45, with three Democrats voting against it and eight Republicans voting in favor.

Last in line was the Secure and Succeed Act, a bill introduced by a group led by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa) and that largely mirrored President Trump's immigration plan: amnesty for 1.8 million in exchange for $25 billion in border funding and an end to the diversity visa lottery and chain migration. Trump had backed the bill, as had McConnell, but that was not enough to win the bill the day. Indeed, it could not even command a majority in the Republican-controlled Senate, losing 39 to 60. Three Democrats—Donnelly, Manchin, and Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.)—backed the bill, but some 14 Republicans defected.

With each of these four bills defeated, the future of congressional immigration reform remains uncertain. There are still several Senate proposals: Sen. Jeff Flake (R., Ariz.) floated a proposal similar to the Grassley bill, but which repurposed the chain migration visas rather than eliminating them; and Sens. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) and Dick Durbin's (D., Ill.) DREAM Act remains a perennial proposition. In the House, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R., Va.) led a group to introduce a bill which also largely mirrors the White House's immigration plan.

McConnell had previously said that he would limit debate on immigration to just one week in the Senate; it remains to be seen, given Thursday's failure to reach agreement, whether or not he will adhere to that deadline.