A bipartisan group of senators agreed late Wednesday on a process to craft an immigration reform bill that protects so-called "Dreamers," bolsters border security, and reforms the nation’s immigration system.
Lawmakers decided that ideas for the reform bill should filter through the two Senate whips – Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Minority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill. – who will then work together to write a bill.
"What we asked them as a group is whether they would take on the responsibility of basically being air traffic control to try to get this plane landed,” Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., said. “And I’m hopeful they will be able to do it.”
If the bill advances, which would require 60 votes, it would be open to amendments by anyone, the group decided.
“Sen. Durbin and I agreed to be a facilitator to get ideas on a bipartisan basis from the senators and try to compile a consensus piece of legislation that we would then present to the majority leader before or after or on Feb. 8 that would be the starting place for the legislative process,” Cornyn said after the meeting.
Cornyn said lawmakers did not talk bill specifics, such as chain migration, the visa lottery system, or funding for a wall, which are all Republican priorities. Lawmakers also did not talk specifically about the Dreamers, who came here illegally as children and face deportation after the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program expires in early March.
All are expected to be included in some way in the bill, but lawmakers said the difficulty will be finding a way to include party priorities and still reach the 60 votes that will be needed to advance the bill and later end debate on it.
“We have plenty of ideas,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said.
Senators also discussed the news Wednesday that President Trump next week will present a legislative framework that administration officials said on Wednesday would win bipartisan consensus.
Cornyn said he does not know what is in the president’s plan.
Bennet, after the meeting, said lawmakers were told the White House is likely to produce “a set of principles the president was interested in.”
Bennet added that the Trump framework would not necessarily stand in the way of the Senate producing a plan if it is indeed a list of principles rather than specifics.
“If that is true, people thought that was a normal part of the process,” Bennet said. “And that it wouldn’t blow it up.”
Senators are hoping to meet a Feb. 8 deadline, which is the next expiration date for government funding, but most acknowledged they may need more time.
Party retreats and a House recess this week mean that getting a deal by Feb. 8 would happen “with great difficulty,” Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, said.
The process is now underway, and separate bipartisan talks are taking place in Senate, which is in session until tomorrow and then will be back next week.
“This gives us a chance to have an orderly process between now and Feb. 8,” Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said after the meeting, which took place in a Senate committee room near the Capitol.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said the process creates “order out of chaos,” that can lead to a bill.
Graham said the Senate is more determined than it has been in a long time, to function in a bipartisan way and to lead.
Graham said that will happen, even though Trump is producing his own proposal.
“This process is the best chance we will have to find our voice on immigration,” Graham said. “I really believe, of the bodies in play here, the Senate is the best capable of leading.”