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Democrats tried to pass TPS for Venezuelans. Senate Republicans blocked it

Sens. Rubio and Scott have been caught between their party and Florida’s large Venezuelan population.
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Published Jul. 31, 2019

The U.S. Senate will leave for a six-week break without passing a bill to grant Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, for Venezuelans even though the House of Representatives passed a similar measure last week.

Two Democratic senators, Bob Menendez of New Jersey and Dick Durbin of Illinois, attempted to pass the House’s TPS bill by unanimous consent on the Senate floor Tuesday. The move, which is essentially a voice vote, bypasses Senate procedure in an attempt to pass legislation quickly, but it fails if one senator opposes it.

Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee opposed Menendez and Durbin’s request, so the fast-track effort to pass TPS failed.

Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who co-sponsored a Senate version of the House TPS bill with Menendez, said the full Senate will not vote on the bill before leaving for break at the end of the week.

“Not this week, I don’t anticipate movement on it,” Rubio said in an interview with the Miami Herald. “I anticipate hopefully getting the administration to do something. That’s what we’ve been working on behind the scenes here, we’ve made a little progress on it. We have 17 votes already scheduled this week, a bunch of nominees, the spending bill, the veto override. The votes this week have already been scheduled.”

The major hurdle for passing TPS legislation: conservative Republicans in Congress along with a group of White House officials. They are wary of extending TPS to Venezuela while trying to end the program in countries like Haiti, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua. Every House Democrat and a minority of Republicans like Rubio, Florida Sen. Rick Scott and Miami Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart are in favor of granting TPS to Venezuelans.

Granting TPS would give Venezuelans the ability to live and work legally in the U.S. There are an estimated 170,000 Venezuelans in Florida, the most of any U.S. state.

The House and Senate first introduced TPS bills in January, but House Democrats waited until days before leaving for six weeks to fast-track their bill.

Lee argued that fast-tracking TPS in the Senate does not give Republicans enough time to consider the House bill and offer changes to it.

“Just passing this unanimously is not the way we should be passing this legislation,” Lee said. “We’ve got amendments to propose.”

Miami Democratic Rep. Donna Shalala, who led efforts to fast-track the TPS bill last week, said she wasn’t surprised that Republicans blocked the bill.

“While I’m extremely disappointed in the actions of Sen. Lee and his Republican colleagues who blocked this life-saving legislation, I can’t say that I’m surprised,” Shalala said in a statement. “For years now, Republicans have been wrapping themselves in the Venezuelan flag and claiming to be champions for the restoration of Venezuelan democracy, yet at virtually every opportunity to help the Venezuelan people, the Republican leadership in the Senate, House, and administration consistently let them down.”

Rubio said he has no interest in passing the TPS bill sponsored by Diaz-Balart and Rep. Darren Soto, D-Kissimmee, because “our version is better.”

“I think the White House seems more willing to sign it,” said Rubio of his and Menendez’s bill. “It is less open to the sort of legal challenge that is making the White House hesitant about doing TPS. They argue that they don’t want to do a new TPS because once they do it, it becomes permanent. The courts aren’t letting them undo the ones that are there now even if they wanted to. So, that’s been the argument against TPS.”

Rubio said he’s attempting to get the Trump administration to approve Deferred Enforced Departure, or DED, for Venezuelans as an alternative to TPS. DED also allows recipients to live and work in the U.S. for a limited period of time like TPS, but is granted directly by the president instead of the Department of Homeland Security.

Rubio said the approval process for DED gives the president more power to end the program in the future, quelling a major concern for some Republicans that TPS eventually becomes a path to permanent residency. Liberia is the only country with DED status, approved by President George W. Bush after TPS for Liberia expired in 2007. An estimated 840 to 3,600 Liberians are enrolled in DED, which is set to end in March 2020.

“If we can get deferred forced removal with a work permit like there is with Liberia, that’s the functional equivalent of TPS,” Rubio said. “There’s some legal issues with that as well, but it’s the functional equivalent of a TPS designation without some of the legal pushback we’ve gotten.”

Like TPS, DED can be approved by the White House without congressional action. Rubio said he’s had productive discussions with the White House about DED.

“There are a lot of people in the administration who want to do it, it’s just been kind of tied up in the broader TPS battle,” Rubio said. “I think we’re making progress. I’m not guaranteeing anything yet, but we’re making progress in our talks with them.”

But Durbin argued that immediate action from Congress is necessary for 70,000 Venezuelans in the U.S. on visas more than six months after the U.S. recognized Juan Guaidó as the country’s legitimate leader.

“We are warning Americans it is unsafe to visit Venezuela but we’re telling Venezuelans that are in the United States they have to go back,” Durbin said. “People are literally starving to death in Venezuela. How in good conscience could we say to Venezuelans in the United States that you have to return?”