WASHINGTON — The Senate's top Republican endorsed a plan Monday that would revamp immigration policy the way President Donald Trump wants to, as senators began debating whether to grant permanent legal status to some young undocumented immigrants and bolster the nation's southern border security.
The showdown began with no sense of what might ultimately pass the closely divided Senate and could be sent to the House before reaching Trump for his signature. The only thing senators agreed on with near unanimity was to start the discussion, voting 97-1 Monday night.
"The American people have heard no shortage of rhetoric on this issue. They have heard many of my colleagues across the aisle insist this issue requires swift action," said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. "Now is the time to back up the talk with the hard work of finding a workable solution."
McConnell endorsed a sweeping GOP plan that fulfills Trump's calls to legalize the status of 1.8 million so-called "dreamers," spends at least $25 billion to bolster defenses along the U.S.-Mexico border, makes changes to family-based legal migration programs, and ends a diversity lottery system used by immigrants from smaller countries.
The Secure and Succeed Act is "the only piece of legislation that can get through the Senate, through the House of Representatives, most importantly signed by the president" said its lead sponsor, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa.
But no Democrats are believed to back the plan in full, and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. described it as "an all-Republican measure." Many Democrats don't like how the proposal would chip away at family-based legal migration — what conservatives deride as "chain" migration — and how much money would be spent to build a wall and fencing along the southern border.
Trump repeatedly said during the 2016 campaign that Mexico would pay for the wall, but instead he is seeking billions in U.S. taxpayer dollars to build it.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called for a modest solution focused mostly on protecting people whose permanent legal status is set to expire when the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, ends on March 5.
Trump had canceled the Obama-era program in September and asked Congress to resolve the issue.
Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said he would be introducing a plan today co-authored by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., that would grant legal status to dreamers in the country since 2013, but not immediately authorize money to build out southern border walls and fencing. A similar version of the bill has been introduced in the House with 54 co-sponsors in both parties. Based on input from GOP colleagues, Coons said he might tweak his version of the legislation to include more immediate border security funding in a bid to win more Republican support.
Durbin said he hasn't ruled out introducing the Dream Act, a bill first unveiled during George W. Bush's presidency that would provide blanket legal protections for millions of dreamers. While the concept has broad national support, Republicans are expected to oppose the plan unless it is coupled with changes in border security or immigration enforcement.
"There's a lot at stake here," said Durbin, who has devoted much of his Senate career to seeking changes in immigration policy.