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Senate leaders reach deal to reopen government with help from bipartisan caucus

Lisa Mascaro, Tribune Washington Bureau • Jan 22, 2018 at 3:29 PM

WASHINGTON — Senate leaders have reached an agreement to end the three-day government shutdown by passing a stopgap spending bill and committing to tackle the issue of immigration before the next deadline, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said Monday.

The Senate voted overwhelmingly, 81-18, to advance the bill to reopen the government, Final passage in the Senate is expected later Monday. Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., said House Republicans would support the temporary measure, which extends government funding until Feb. 8.

In return for Democrats’ support, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., agreed to consider legislation to help “Dreamers,” young immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children. Their protection from deportation will end in March because President Donald Trump is terminating the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

The deal was brokered by an unusually large bipartisan group of more than 20 senators that had been meeting for days, including Monday morning, to resolve the standoff after talks broke down between leaders and the White House.

Democrats were initially cool to McConnell’s offer, wanting more than a promise that GOP leaders, who control the Senate floor schedule, would seriously consider an immigration bill.

Fifteen Democrats, including Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and other leading liberals, voted against the measure, as did Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont Independent. Two Republicans, Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah, also voted against the bill.

Harris told reporters afterward it was “foolhardy” to believe McConnell.

“I refuse to put the lives of nearly 700,000 young people in the hands of someone who has repeatedly gone back on his word,” Harris said on Twitter.

But McConnell, who spent the past few days railing angrily at Democrats over immigration, offered a notably more measured tone Monday ahead of the vote.

Not once before the vote did the GOP leader mention “illegal immigration” as he extended his offer to consider legislation. It was a shift from his earlier insistence that any immigration bill needed White House support before coming for a vote.

“So long as the government remains open … it would be my intention to take up legislation here in the Senate that would address DACA, border security and related issues,” McConnell said. “Let me be clear: This immigration debate will have a level playing field at the outset, and an amendment process that is fair to all sides.”

Senators said the change in tone and language — specifically the GOP leaders’ promise that immigration legislation would be considered an open process — was a move in their direction that allowed them to vote yes after a Sunday vote was abruptly canceled.

“What changed overnight for me was Leader McConnell’s statement this morning,” said Sen. Angus King, the Maine Independent who caucuses with Democrats. “He was committed to bringing a bill to the floor in a fair, level playing field setting.”

After the vote, however, McConnell returned to his criticism that Democrats were putting “illegal immigration” ahead of the interests of all Americans.

Democratic leaders, who gambled heavily with the shutdown, assured skeptics that they would not relent on the immigration fight. “To all the Dreamers who are watching today: Don’t give up,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., who called the DREAM Act “the civil rights issue of our time.”

The deal was striking because it was forged not by the president at the White House or GOP leaders who have majority control of Congress, but by a bipartisan group of more than 20 senators — swelling at times to 30 — who worked over the weekend to find common ground.

Called the Common Sense Caucus, the group was able to succeed where partisan leaders had stalled, possibly signaling the rising clout of moderate lawmakers willing to broker compromise.

“This is one group that, every time we met, we kept getting more people coming,” said Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.

For many, the gatherings in the office of Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, offered a glimpse of how a new Senate could break from the hyperpartisanship in Washington to govern.

“Susan’s office is Switzerland,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who helped organize the sessions.

In an unusual display of comity, the group gathered off the Senate floor after Monday’s vote for a celebratory huddle — Republicans and Democrats.

“If we can make a lasting difference in how the Senate of the United States works, we can get it back to working,” said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., who had been instrumental in the group.

The path ahead, though, remains difficult with some 17 days to reach consensus on major outstanding issues, including budget spending levels, disaster relief, opioid funding and others.

The immigration debate will be most daunting, reminiscent of 2013 when the Senate passed an ambitious immigration overhaul, including deportation protections for some 11 million immigrants here illegally, only to see it roundly ignored by the GOP-led House as “amnesty.”

Skeptics, including the Democratic base that has been pushing the party leftward as it fights the administration, may be tough to convince.

Dreamers and their allies, who have been a constant presence in their orange shirts and caps on Capitol Hill, intensified pressure on Democrats to hold out for the best deal.

“Immigrant youth cannot trust a promise,” said Greisa Martinez, an organizer at United We Dream, a large immigrant advocacy group, in a call before the vote. “At stake is my future … the future of millions of young people who grew up in the United States.”

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said he understood voters’ concerns, and encouraged them to hold lawmakers accountable.

“One of the reasons they’re skeptical is they don’t see the parties working together,” he said. “We’re going to hang together for other challenges too, because we think the engagement of this group of 30 can help the Senate be more like the Senate.”

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