Why Senate Republicans may sink House Dreamer bill


House Democrats unveiled a bill they says will offer protections to immigrants. The Dream and Promise Act would offer a path to US citizenship for young, undocumented immigrants, including those Protected under DACA. (March 12)

WASHINGTON – House Democrats introduced a bill Tuesday to grant permanent protections to undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children, but the fate of those Dreamers will ultimately rest in the hands of Senate Republicans, a group that has struggled for nearly two decades to come up with a solution that they, and their conservative base, can endorse.

There used to be a time when the DREAM Act was accepted by a wide range of Senate Republicans who felt it unfair to punish children for the actions of their parents. The 2003 version of the bill was sponsored by former Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, and had 12 other GOP members signed on as co-sponsors. 

But little by little, as the party’s more conservative wing began viewing the DREAM Act less as an act of “compassion” and more an act of “amnesty,” the GOP has backed away from the idea. The 2005 version of the bill had nine Republican co-sponsors, the 2007 version had five, the 2009 version had two, and the 2011 version had none.

The tide had changed so drastically by 2017 that most Senate Republicans quickly tweeted out statements supporting President Donald Trump after he announced his decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, the Obama-era program that had protected more than 800,000 Dreamers from deportation.

That decision was blocked by federal courts, leaving Dreamers in legal limbo and prompting the push by House Democrats to pass a permanent legislative fix for them. But its prospects in today’s Senate GOP caucus appear dire.

Richard Lugar, a Republican from Indiana who served 36 years in the Senate, was an early and consistent supporter of the DREAM Act. He said even in the early days of the bill, before the tea party movement and the Freedom Caucus and Trump’s zealous band of followers, Republicans agonized between their personal belief that Dreamers were entitled to citizenship and their political concerns over supporting any form of so-called “amnesty.”

That internal battle has only become more acute, Lugar said, as polarization has intensified between the parties and within the Republican party itself. That leaves senators seeing little payoff to support the DREAM Act and all kinds of risks. 

“It’s a situation where members decide this is not an issue that they’re prepared to bleed and die on,” Lugar said. “There are several out there that support it, but this doesn’t appear to be the time.”

That helps explain why Missouri GOP Sen. Roy Blunt paused for five full seconds Tuesday after USA TODAY asked if he believed the Senate should take up the House bill to protect Dreamers. “I’m actually very pro-Dreamers,” he said. But Blunt wouldn’t say how he’d vote on a standalone bill because he hadn’t seen details.

Many of his colleagues are more direct, saying that a standalone Dreamer bill has no chance. Instead, the White House and most Republicans have endorsed a Dreamer fix only in exchange for billions of dollars in border security or wholesale changes of the legal immigration system.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who chairs the Judiciary Committee and has long been vocal about the need to protect Dreamers, told USA TODAY on Tuesday that he thinks the Senate should “see if we can find a more comprehensive solution” over the House bill. 

“The immigration quagmire has changed,” Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., said when asked what has shifted within his party. “Everybody is going to have to give something in order to make progress, that’s what’s changed.”

The House bill, known as the Dream and Promise Act and co-sponsored by more than 190 Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, would create a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers and foreigners with Temporary Protected Status, or TPS.

That program has allowed more than 300,000 foreigners to legally live and work in the U.S. after their home countries were ravaged by war or natural disasters. The Trump administration has tried to end that program for 98 percent of the TPS population, but has also been blocked by federal courts.

And while the measure is expected to sail through the Democratic-controlled House, it stands little chance in the Republican-led Senate.

Few in that chamber have experienced the Republican shift as much as Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. The Cuban-American was once a member of the bipartisan “Gang of 8,” which passed a bill in 2013 that would allow all the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants to apply for citizenship in exchange for improved border security. At the time, it was the Republican-led House that killed the bill.

But after taking a beating in conservative circles for his embrace of “amnesty,” Rubio has taken a more hard-line stance on immigration-related issues. On Tuesday, he told USA TODAY the standalone House bill to protect Dreamers had no chance in the Senate.

“You can’t bring it up, because once you do, it will be amended and it becomes a vehicle for multiple amendments outside of the DREAM Act,” Rubio said. “That’s why dealing with immigration has been so difficult. You’re never going to get a clean vote on any immigration issue because everybody has got something on immigration that they want and they’ll use that as a vehicle to try and amend it. And then bills fall apart.” 



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