7 lawmakers to watch as immigration debate resumes

Emma Dumain, McClatchy Washington Bureau on

Published in Political News

WASHINGTON -- Congress will return this week to the political cauldron of immigration policy, and almost every member will claim to be a player.

But realistically, if a deal is reached to protect nearly 700,000 undocumented immigrants from deportation, only a few will be able to claim credit.

They represent a range of roles on Capitol Hill: establishment insiders, veteran dealmakers, consensus-builders and unrelenting agitators.

Those members of Congress are hoping to make a deal before Thursday, when much of the government could shut down again.

Democrats want an assurance that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program will be preserved as a condition of voting to maintain government funding.

Republicans want a deal, too, to avoid another shutdown. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., promised that after the Thursday deadline for avoiding that, he would allow an open debate on the Senate floor on immigration proposals. That will force the Senate to take controversial votes, likely resulting in legislation that might not have enough conservative support to survive in the House or be signed by President Donald Trump.

Chances are, lawmakers won't agree on an immigration bill in time to beat the March 5 deadline that Trump set to end the DACA program once and for all.

Here are seven lawmakers to watch as the debate unfolds:

–– Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. The White House panned the immigration proposal Graham promoted with Senate Democratic Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, which included a path to citizenship for DACA beneficiaries.

But their framework is still being used as a starting point for the nearly 36 senators from both parties who showed up for a meeting Graham convened after the Senate vote to reopen government last month after a three-day shutdown. They have since been meeting nearly every legislative workday to come up with a new framework.

The initial meeting Graham orchestrated was also where the decision was made to use Durbin and his Republican counterpart, Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas, as the clearinghouses for negotiating the group's ideas with other party leaders.

–– Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. Graham convened the meeting to begin immigration negotiations, but it was Collins who first opened her office doors the weekend of the January government shutdown to any senator who wanted to revive federal operations.

Many of these members of her "Common Sense Caucus" have joined the immigration group, which Collins is continuing to host.

If those meetings end, or are permanently moved elsewhere, it could send an important signal about where she ––one of Congress's most respected moderates and bridge-builders –– thinks the conversations are headed.

–– Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill. Just like the end of Collins's involvement in immigration discussions could signal the deterioration of bipartisan negotiations, Gutierrez's embrace of an immigration proposal could indicate a breakthrough.

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Democrats are struggling with what they'd be willing to accept in an immigration deal. Gutierrez is himself incensed over the White House's proposal to give all DACA beneficiaries a path to citizenship in exchange for reducing legal immigration to the lowest level in almost a century and erecting a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

But Gutierrez, a hero to pro-DACA activists, has also said he's willing to accept a compromise bill, and if he accepts one, other Democrats might come along, too.

–– Durbin. He has fought for years for legislation to protect DACA beneficiaries from deportation, and Democrats continue to be confident that he will be a good-faith negotiator with Republicans. At the same time, fellow Democrats know Durbin won't sign on to any deal that doesn't have their support.

Judging by his stone-faced response to Trump's State of the Union address, it's clear that Durbin will continue to hold the line for Democrats in the days ahead.

–– Cornyn. In the hours before the government shutdown last month, as lawmakers lobbied McConnell to promise a path forward on immigration so Democrats would vote to keep government open, Cornyn said McConnell should not reward Democrats for "bad behavior." Last week, Cornyn said he was in "pretty constant" contact with the White House.

Though Cornyn is now one of the negotiators on immigration legislation, he has consistently represented in leadership ranks the voices of conservatives who want a deal aligned with the far-right base. Cornyn could continue to be a voice of reason among Senate Republicans about what can and can't be accomplished if they want to avoid intraparty warfare.

–– Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C. If Cornyn is helping guide Republicans in the Senate, Meadows is helping steer Republicans in the House toward a deal that conservatives can accept. As the chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus who regularly communicates with members of the Trump administration, Meadows is positioned to provide the pressure necessary to influence House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.

Meadows wants a vote on legislation from House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., which doesn't have the support to pass in the Senate and might not even have the votes to advance in the House. But if Meadows doesn't get what he wants, he could mobilize more than three dozen conservatives to revolt.

–– Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla. Early public signs that Diaz-Balart was engaging in current immigration negotiations came last month, when he was invited to two Oval Office meetings to discuss the issue. Other than that, he has had a relatively low profile in this round of discussions –– though that is how Diaz-Balart has typically behaved on immigration matters.

In 2014, Diaz-Balart was within striking distance of persuading House Republican leaders to put a comprehensive immigration bill on the floor, an effort that fizzled after the surprise primary defeat of Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va. Three and a half years later, he could be making moves to build consensus on the issue again.

(c)2018 McClatchy Washington Bureau

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