WASHINGTON — With the fate of hundreds of thousands of young, undocumented immigrants in the balance, the Senate on Monday began an open-ended debate on immigration — an exceedingly rare step that, in effect, will allow senators to attempt to build a bill from scratch on the Senate floor.
The highly unusual debate, expected to unfold throughout the week, will test whether a series of legislative concepts and proposals championed by President Trump and a variety of Republicans and Democrats can garner 60 votes, the threshold for a measure to pass the Senate. No one has any idea how it will turn out.
“Whoever gets to 60 wins,” Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, told reporters last week. “And it will be an opportunity for 1,000 flowers to bloom.”
The debate kicked off Monday evening with a procedural vote on an unrelated House-passed measure that will serve as a shell for building an immigration bill. By a vote of 97 to 1, with only Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, dissenting, senators took the first step toward consideration of the underlying measure, as expected.
The push on immigration comes against the backdrop of a ticking clock, and months of congressional inaction.
About 700,000 young immigrants who were brought to the United States illegally as children are shielded from deportation under an Obama-era initiative known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. Another 1.1 million young immigrants are eligible for DACA but did not apply. But Mr. Trump suspended the initiative in September and gave lawmakers until March 5 to come up with a replacement that would protect the young immigrants, known as Dreamers, after proposed legislation called the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors, or DREAM Act.
Liberal interest groups and immigration rights activists have mobilized to insist on legal status for the Dreamers without the concessions demanded by the president and immigration hard-liners: billions for a wall on the Mexican border, an even more aggressive crackdown on illegal immigrants and dramatic changes to the legal immigration system that would favor skilled immigrants over the family members of citizens and green-card holders.
By Sheryl Gay Stolberg in THE NEW YORK TIMES
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