McConnell’s immigration gamble – POLITICO

 In Politics

Mitch McConnell is taking the reins of an immigration debate that may prompt a fix for “Dreamers” — or quickly spiral out of control.

Usually careful with his every move, the Senate majority leader is taking a gamble this week with his pledge for a free-for-all debate over the fate of hundreds of thousands of young undocumented immigrants.

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No one knows the GOP leader’s endgame, nor how he personally prefers the stalemate over Dreamers to be resolved. It’s highly unusual for a Senate majority leader, particularly one as calculating as McConnell, to bring a divisive issue to the floor with no clearly intended result in sight.

Even his top lieutenants aren’t sure whether McConnell would ultimately support a final immigration deal that can clinch the 60 votes needed to clear the Senate.

“He’s trying to be an honest broker in this and just make sure that he treats people fairly. I’m sure he has his preferences. I’ve never heard him express them, exactly,” said South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the No. 3 Senate Republican. “I’m not aware of any particular bill that he really likes.”

“Mitch is ambivalent,” said a Republican senator. The White House has no idea what he is going to do, according to a senior administration official.

What is clear is that the Kentucky Republican’s pledge of unlimited amendments could open up vulnerable senators in both parties to politically tough votes on a range of contentious issues — from beefed-up enforcement to a pathway to citizenship. And despite allies’ claims that McConnell wants to get the issue off the Senate’s plate, there’s no guarantee his promise for a freewheeling immigration debate will yield a new law.

McConnell has quietly aligned himself with legislation rolled out by Senate Republicans late last year that would significantly ramp up border resources and interior enforcement measures and limit family sponsorship to just spouses and minor children. In exchange, current beneficiaries under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program would get temporary protections. But that bill has no chance of becoming law amid fierce Democratic resistance.

So amid largely fruitless bipartisan immigration talks in the Senate over the past several months, McConnell has remained mostly hands off. He declined to explicitly endorse a White House framework on immigration, saying merely that senators should look at the plan as “guidance” as they craft a deal. He’s insisted there is “no secret plan” in his back pocket.

But McConnell does want strong GOP backing for any final bill and will be loath to pass anything that can’t get at least 30 Senate Republicans in support, according to two Republican senators. That might go a long way toward insulating his party from conservative criticism, as well as winning over President Donald Trump and House Republicans.

The chief Senate GOP negotiator on immigration has been his top deputy, Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas. And other Senate Republicans who are trying to hash out an immigration deal with Democrats say McConnell is giving them freedom to negotiate.

Whether McConnell himself joins the horse-trading is perhaps the biggest open question.

“The leader said no bounds whatsoever,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who engaged in talks with Democrats late last year. “This is clearly a case where he’s saying, ‘You all craft a solution that we can get out of the Senate, we have a high expectation that it will be received well by the House, and that is consistent with the president’s view.’”

McConnell has pledged to senators to devote the Senate floor solely to immigration for at least two weeks, according to senators, a significant promise given the value of floor time in a chamber that moves at glacial speed.

“He’s in a unique role of just making sure that everybody gets a fair opportunity to have their views presented,” Cornyn said. “I know he wants to deal with it. But I think his interest is more in facilitating the process.”

Democrats fear McConnell could follow the outlines of his immigration commitment yet ultimately do little to secure relief for Dreamers.

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