By Jim Thomas
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., is quietly considering a fast-track budget maneuver to legalize millions of illegal immigrants if bipartisan talks on providing a pathway to citizenship fall apart, The New York Times reported.
The strategy is part of a backup plan Schumer has lined up if talks among 15 senators in both parties fail to yield a compromise on immigration.
As the negotiations drag on with little agreement in sight, proponents on the left are growing increasingly worried Democrats might squander a rare opportunity to legalize broad swaths of the undocumented population while their party controls both chambers of Congress and the White House.
Schumer has privately told members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus in recent weeks he is “actively exploring” whether it would be possible to attach a broad revision of immigration laws to President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan and pass it through a process known as budget reconciliation, according to two people briefed on his comments, the Times reported.
“Democrats must act,” says Sergio Gonzales, the director of the Immigration Hub, which pushes for a pro-immigrant agenda in Congress. “Now is the time. This year is the time. We must have citizenship this year.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., last month endorsed the idea of using reconciliation to push through an immigration measure, citing the “budget impacts of immigration in our country.” Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the No. 3 Democrat, also came out in favor of the approach last week, the Times reported.
Republicans involved in the talks warn that before Congress can act to address undocumented immigrants, it must address the large influx of migrants across the southwestern border.
In March, border agents encountered nearly 19,000 children at the border — the largest number recorded in a single month — most of them fleeing poverty and violence in Central America, though the numbers are dropping, according to the Times.
“Before we can do anything meaningful on immigration, we’re going to have to deal with the current crisis at the border,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who has been involved in the bipartisan talks. “I don’t think the public is going to tolerate us ignoring this crisis, and it’s just going to get worse unless we deal with it.”
As for moving Schumer’s immigration agenda through reconciliation, he said: “I think they’re dreaming; I don’t think the parliamentarian will allow that. That’s not really the purpose of reconciliation.”
The reconciliation move would allow the measures to pass the evenly divided Senate with 50 Democrat and independent votes, shielding them from a filibuster and the 60-vote threshold for moving past one, which would otherwise require at least 10 Republican votes. Vice President Kamala Harris would cast the 51st vote in the event of a 50-50 tie.
The Senate parliamentarian since 2012, Elizabeth MacDonough, recently said the reconciliation process could be used at least once more during this fiscal year, according to the Times.
However, to pull it off, Democrats would have to grapple with strict budget rules that limit what can be done under reconciliation. They require that any policy change included must have a budgetary impact that is more than merely incidental.
Other measures favored by liberal activists, such a federal minimum-wage increase to $15 per hour, have been nixed from a reconciliation package by the Senate parliamentarian, the ultimate arbiter of the rules, for failing to meet that high bar, the Times reported.
Kerri Talbot, the deputy director of the Immigration Hub says she believes the total budget impact of the immigration bills under consideration is high enough to meet the reconciliation standard.
“We’re definitely in the tens of billions; we think we pass that test,” she said.
The estimated cost of the House-passed legalization measures is about $40 billion over 10 years.
Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., another of the 15 senators involved in the immigration talks, said he believed trying to use the reconciliation process for immigration reform would be a “disaster.”
But Tillis said he thought a bipartisan deal that couples a path to citizenship with a greater investment in border security was still possible and perhaps getting closer.
“The crisis at the border is indisputable — even the president admits that now — so if we can work on that, and then work on some of the path options that I’ve supported in the past, I’m guardedly optimistic,” he said.