A bipartisan group of senators attempting to craft an immigration compromise have an arduous task ahead of them: finding a deal that can attract the support of Democrats, moderate Republicans and the hard-line conservatives who have newfound power and influence in the House.
Ten senators last week visited multiple spots along the border for an up-close look at the issues consuming the immigration system. President Biden also traveled to El Paso, Texas, the epicenter of what members on both sides of the aisle describe as a crisis.
Despite that agreement, lawmakers must navigate the tricky contours of the politics of immigration — an issue that’s famously difficult to get agreement on while also serving as a key talking point in recent presidential elections.
That’s not deterring talks among those in the Senate, however.
“This is going to take months to potentially get to something that we could get the support in the House. We can’t simply, because it’s politically difficult, say we can’t touch it this Congress,” Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), one of those that made the border trip, told The Hill.
Tillis and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.), who was also among those at the border last week, made a last-minute attempt last year to win support for a narrow proposal that would have allocated tens of billions of dollars to border security and processing asylum requests while also handing “Dreamers” — those brought to the U.S. as children without authorization — a long-awaited path to citizenship.
But that push — which consisted of a framework and not a bill — was too little, too late.
Tillis and Sinema’s attempt at bipartisan compromise may have been the last chance for the foreseeable future for Congress to take action, despite both parties in Congress and the White House acknowledging the problem.
Any deal that could emerge from the Senate — meaning with the support of at least nine Senate Republicans — would likely earn resistance from far-right members of the GOP-controlled House.
“It’s harder because the politics have gotten even harder for Republicans to get to ‘yes,’” said Alex Conant, who served as press secretary for Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) during the “Gang of Eight” immigration fight in 2013. “You look at the political fallout for those involved in the 2013 deal, and how a lot of Republicans have been able to use immigration to win nominations since then, it’s an issue that Republicans are very wary of getting on the wrong side of.”
Since the 2013 comprehensive immigration reform package failed, the politics of the topic has only hardened on the right and the voices have gotten louder. Adding to the troubles is that members are heading into a presidential election cycle and are hesitant to deliver any wins for Biden, especially on a topic that matters this much to the base.
Many House Republicans made immigration a central issue and some are already talking about impeaching Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. Rep. Pat Fallon (R-Texas) filed articles of impeachment against the secretary last week.
And on Wednesday, Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) and Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) sent a letter pressing Mayorkas for answers about border issues, writing that “administration cannot continue its erosion of the southern border and its mass-parole of migrants into our country.”
“It’s been a steep hill — steep and tall — for 40 years. That’s why nothing’s gotten done. So this is just a different dynamic,” said Tillis, who blamed the “talking heads” in part for scuttling his efforts with Sinema last year. “I don’t think it’s fair to blame this Congress. This Congress could be the first one since leisure suits were popular to do something on immigration.”
Tillis, who has become a key player in bipartisan negotiations on myriad topics in the past two years, said he is expected to discuss a path to passage of immigration reform with Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and House Freedom Caucus members.
Some political observers believe the impetus for a deal could be simple: The situation at the border now is worse than it was a decade ago as monthly encounters with migrants are near record highs.
One Senate GOP aide added that the road to a bipartisan, bicameral deal is “difficult but not impossible.”
“Details will really matter, though,” the aide said. “At the very least, it’s good to finally see a substantive bipartisan acknowledgement that there’s actually a problem at the border.”
Legislation that passes muster with both chambers, however, would need to overcome another complicating factor in the House: McCarthy, as part of the deals he struck to become Speaker, empowered a far-right contingent of his party and handed them an easier procedural avenue to oust him, just as they did former Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) in 2015 — two years after Boehner refused to bring the “Gang of Eight” bill to the floor for a vote.
“I don’t think it’s this,” one conservative Senate aide told The Hill about McCarthy’s lack of willingness to complicate his standing as Speaker over a Senate-negotiated immigration bill.
“What [former President Trump] showed was you can run on a pretty hard-line immigration stance and win on it,” the aide continued. “I don’t think they get there without something Democrats can’t stomach.”
For now, all eyes are on the Senate to see how it proceeds, though it all comes down to what McCarthy and House conservatives could accept.
“Now we have a gavel,” Tillis said. “And when you have a gavel, you have to govern.”