Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Monday promised to take up an immigration bill protecting an estimated 800,000 "Dreamers" from deportation and allow an open amendment process if Democrats agree to reopen the government.
The Senate will vote at noon on a three-week funding resolution to end the government shutdown that began at midnight Saturday. The legislation includes an extension of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).
Democrats have been pressing McConnell for a vote on the Dreamers legislation, and it is unclear whether his latest commitments will be enough to win them over.
With some Republicans expected to vote against the bill, nearly a dozen Democratic votes will likely be needed to clear a 60-vote procedural hurdle.
Senate Democrats and Republicans will try to negotiate an immigration compromise before the pending stopgap measure would expire on Feb. 8, if that stopgap is approved.
If they fail to reach a deal, McConnell promised he will bring an immigration bill to the floor in February.
But McConnell said his promise would only be good if Democrats agree to reopen the government.
“Should these issues not be resolved by the time the funding bill before us expires on Feb. 8, so long as the government remains open, it would be my intention to take up legislation here in the Senate that would address DACA, border security and related issues as well as disaster relief,” McConnell said, referring to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program started by President Obama that President Trump is winding down.
The GOP leader pledged “this immigration debate will have a level playing field at the outset and an amendment process that is fair to all sides,” he said.
Behind the scenes, a group of centrist Democrats and Republicans have been trying to work out a deal on immigration.
Democrats leaving a meeting of moderate senators on Monday morning said they are still discussing how to get a firmer commitment for a vote to protect young immigrants in the country illegally.
"We just need a commitment on that that's firm, that we know we're going to be on it, the question is how firm the commitment [will be]" said Sen Tim Kaine (D-Va.) leaving the meeting in Sen Susan Collins's (R-Maine) office.
Sen Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said they need a "real commitment" to bring up an immigration bill.
No Democrats said leaving the meeting that they are changing their votes. Though when asked how he would vote at a noon vote on Monday, Sen Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said he thought that vote could be postponed if negotiators need more time.
Republicans who attended the meeting said McConnell should have been more specific with his promise to ensure Democrats vote "yes."
I do think it would be helpful if the language were a little bit stronger," Collins told reporters.
But she also gave McConnell credit, saying the GOP leader "had moved to accommodate the concerns that have been raised" about needing a commitment on immigration.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) predicted McConnell will make a "firmer commitment when it seems like it will matter."
"I think if Mitch were a little firmer as to 'we are going to move to immigration. ... There will be a process where everybody will be heard,'" he said.
Graham suggested that Democrats go to Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and tell him that they will vote for the continuing resolution if McConnell will use more specific language.
McConnell has said he intends to take up an immigration bill if a larger deal can't be reached by Feb. 8.
But Democrats are quick to point to previous commitments to GOP Sen. Jeff Flake (Ariz.) and Collins that did not come to fruition.
Flake, asked how Democrats could trust McConnell, noting that the GOP leader was making a "pretty high-profile promise."
Republican leaders, however, said Democrats have no reason to be distrustful.
"I think they ought to believe him because he's a trustworthy, honorable person. And I realize there's ... a trust deficit up here generally. But I think one of the first steps to regaining that trust is for the leader to make that commitment and follow through on it," said Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas).
Cornyn said Democrats would not get a more ironclad promise.
"No, I think that's all they're going to get," he said.
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