WASHINGTON ― Democrats in the Senate agreed to reopen the government Monday because, they said, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell promised that the legislative chamber would take up an immigration bill next month.
But it remains unclear how much of a concession McConnell has actually made.
Many beneficiaries of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program ― a Barack Obama initiative deferring deportations for immigrants illegally brought to the U.S. as children ― say Democrats simply caved.
“We actually got nothing,” Adrian Reyna of the United We Dream advocacy group said on the HuffPost Politics podcast.
President Donald Trump rescinded the DACA program in September, but gave Congress until March to come up with a legislative solution before the undocumented immigrants ― also known as Dreamers ― would begin losing status in large numbers. If Congress does nothing, some 700,000 Dreamers will lose work permits and face deportation.
McConnell said on the Senate floor Monday that if lawmakers haven’t struck an immigration deal as part of a spending agreement before the current short-term funding bill expires on Feb. 8, he would bring immigration legislation to the Senate floor.
“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, defense funding, health care, and other important matters,” McConnell said.
McConnell’s remarks amounted to a historic promise, at least according to Democratic leader Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and other senators who voted to reopen the government. “This is the first guarantee that the Republican majority will give a DACA bill fair consideration and an up-or-down vote on the floor,” he said.
But it’s a promise McConnell had already made. In December, partly to win him over on the tax bill, McConnell assured Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) that he would bring a DACA bill to the Senate floor this month, which now seems like it won’t happen.
Reporters asked Flake on Monday how he felt about McConnell promising to do something in February that he’d already promised to do in January.
“We didn’t expect to have a government shutdown or this kind of funding crisis,” Flake said. “We’ll be a week off if we get this, and I can live with that.”
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), an immigration hardliner, said McConnell hadn’t really conceded anything.
“Senator McConnell has been perfectly clear since September [that] he will bring an immigration bill to the floor at the right time,” Cotton said, though it’s not clear if McConnell had ever promised a vote before doing so in December.
The fact that McConnell included “related issues” in his promise, Reyna said, means Republicans could pair legal status for Dreamers with something highly unfavorable, such as restrictions on what Republicans call “chain migration” ― the ability of legal permanent residents to sponsor family members still living abroad.
“The other ‘related issues’ is an intentionally broad piece,” Reyna said.
Dreamers maybe shouldn’t have had such high expectations of Democrats, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) told HuffPost.
“Particularly when you have a party that supports you controlling no part of government, it is impractical to expect that you’ll be able to dictate terms, so that means what we have to look for is progress,” Whitehouse said.
Still, Whitehouse said Dreamers should be glad that Democrats will get a “winnable vote” on the Senate floor and also “the extent to which Democrats put themselves out there to try to make progress.”
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who voted against the funding bill, pointed out that McConnell could promise Senate floor votes, but that any bill would still need to get through the House of Representatives before it could become law.
“The real question is what will be the commitments from the other chamber, from the House,” Wyden said.
Hear interviews with Reyna and Whitehouse on the HuffPost Politics podcast: