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Will Congress have an immigration breakthrough or breakdown?

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell started Tuesday suggesting that there was no reason that lawmakers could not reach a bipartisan immigration solution this week, and threw his support behind a plan mirroring President Trump's. But as he moved to begin debate, Democrats said no, stressing the need for compromise. Lisa Desjardins joins Judy Woodruff to discuss the hurdles.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now to immigration.

    The U.S. Senate is set to officially begin a rare open-ended debate, and it centers on the future of dreamers, those brought here illegally without documentation as children.

    They’d been protected under the DACA program that President Trump is trying to end.

    Lisa Desjardins begins our coverage.

  • Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-KY:

    There’s no reason why we shouldn’t reach a bipartisan solution this week.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    In the first minutes of the day, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell talked of a quick resolution on the fate of dreamers, despite the obstacles.

  • Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-KY:

    Yesterday, a number of my colleagues announced a reasonable proposal that I believe is our best chance to actually make a law.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    McConnell threw his weight behind that legislation, introduced by Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley and five other conservative-leaning Republicans. It mirrors President Trump’s own proposal.

    The so-called Secure and Succeed Act offers a 10-to-12-year path to citizenship for an estimated 1.8 million dreamers brought to the U.S. illegally as children. It also includes $25 billion for a border wall and other security measures, and it limits family-based immigrant visas to spouses and unmarried children under 18.

    The bill also would increase punishment for those who reenter the country illegally after deportation. In Senate hallways today, Grassley spoke with a family who had concerns about the bill. To reporters, he stressed it’s the one measure right now with President Trump’s approval.

  • Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa:

    I think we have a responsibility to listen to all concerns. But there is one bottom line. And that bottom line is, what will the president sign or not sign? So, we have had the president say that he would sign our peace of legislation.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

     But the bill doesn’t have the Democratic support it needs. Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois criticized the cuts to legal immigration.

  • Sen. Richard Durbin, D-IL:

    Today, all across this country and all across the world, we are saluting this amazing 17-year-old girl just skill that she developed. Let’s remember, Chloe Kim’s story is the story of immigration in America. Chloe Kim’s story is a story of people who come to these shores determined to make a life.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The tension showed as the floor debate snagged.

  • Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-KY:

    I would ask consent that at 2:15 today, the motion to proceed to HR-2579 be agreed to.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    McConnell moved to start off debate with an amendment that would crack down on so-called sanctuary cities. That’s a proposal Democrats dislike, and their leader, Chuck Schumer, said no.

  • Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-NY:

    Let’s get this debate started on the right foot. So, I object to the leader’s request.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    And, thus, leaders walked into the afternoon in legislative limbo, with no leading bill on the floor and no agreement on where to start. Schumer pointed to the need for compromise.

  • Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-NY:

    We recognize we’re not going to get everything we want. We hope the president and Republicans realize the same.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Meanwhile, President Trump started the day tweeting that this is the last chance to replace DACA, the program that protects dreamers. And he sounded optimistic as he met with Republican and Democratic senators on trade.

  • President Donald Trump:

    I think we have a chance to DACA very bipartisan. I think that can happen.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The president initially set a March 5 deadline for ending the DACA program. A federal judge has at least temporarily set that deadline aside.

    And this afternoon, another federal judge, this time in Brooklyn, agreed and also ruled that the president’s deadline for DACA should be frozen and that the program should continue, at least temporarily, as it works through the court.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, back to the Senate, Lisa. I heard you call it legislative limbo. Are things as stuck as they look?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Yes, they absolutely are.

    I would describe the atmosphere today as singular. It’s a frenzy of activity, Judy, with no forward motion. And let’s break down exactly what we know could happen. The next time for a vote because of Senate process is tonight at midnight.

    I have sources telling me that is unlikely at this time, but that means the next votes would be tomorrow. Now, the Republicans say they want to finish this, this week. That generally means Thursday. That’s two days from now, but the two parties, as we had in the piece, they disagree over exactly where to begin.

    So there are some very big challenges to even starting debate tomorrow. One beacon of hope came actually from the White House and Marc Short, who’s a legislative aide there. And he told me he does think there are some amendments that could make it to the floor tomorrow. What those are, we will have to see.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    All right, so there are several different plans up for consideration. Give us a sense of the substance of what they’re looking at.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Right.

    I think what’s good to think about in this debate right now is what the problems are first. First, they can’t agree on how large they should go with this bill. There are many still arguing that this bill should focus only on DACA and border security.

    The president and many Republicans want to expand that to include the visa lottery, which they want to end, and also family migration, which they want to limit.

    So, let’s look at the problems, if you start from there. Problem number one, Judy, is that the key bills themselves have still not been drafted. That includes the president’s bill, which is being led by Senator Grassley, which we mentioned. We expect that out any minute, but we haven’t seen it yet.

    Same thing on the other side. The Coons-McCain kind of more moderate bill, we haven’t seen that text either. Bigger problem, no bill. None of these seem to have 60 votes.

    Now, the beacon of hope tonight is that there are small bipartisan groups meeting all across the Senate, and, in fact, they’re kind of in such a tough position, they don’t really want reporters saying who’s meeting with who. They’re trying to be as quiet as possible.

    But it just shows what they’re up against and that they really have not found a way to get 60 votes on anything.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, it sounds like they’re feeling some pressure on themselves to get something done. But it also sounds, Lisa, this is pretty unusual to be in this sort of open debate situation.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Incredibly unusual.

    I sat down with the Senate historian, Betty Koed, today for probably the most elucidating conversation I had all day. And she says, our job is to look at precedent, but because we don’t even know the shape of this debate yet, we’re not sure to where to look for a comparison.

    And she said history is going to have to judge this later, because we’re not even sure where they’re going yet.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Is it kind of a test for the Senate, people watching to see, whether they can actually do this?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    I think, after this very, let’s say, up-and-down year, this might be the biggest test for the Senate.

    I think in the next two days, we are going to see a Senate that either has a complete breakdown of legislative process over an issue, DACA, that most Americans agree on, or they will have a breakthrough.

    Today, it was looking like a breakdown. But they have a few more days. People who are paying attention to this issue, any part of this issue, these are very important days to watch.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And there are a lot of folks on the outside watching really closely and letting their voices be heard.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That’s right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Lisa Desjardins, thanks very much.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    You’re welcome.

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