Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., once seemed the best positioned to save young undocumented immigrants from looming deportation. Not anymore.
Durbin, the Senate’s second-ranking Democrat, told McClatchy that as of Wednesday afternoon he and Graham, his long-time counterpart on immigration legislation, were no longer planning to put some version of their original bill on the Senate floor as part of this week's immigration debate.
The absence of a proposal from the duo shows just how dramatically the dynamics have changed in just one month as Republicans have soured on voting for any proposal that does not have President Donald Trump's explicit blessing from the start.
Lawmakers who were originally behind “Graham-Durbin” have since dropped off to pitch their own plans to preserve the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which Trump plans to terminate on March 5 unless Congress keeps it alive.
Sens. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., and Michael Bennet, D-Colo., were floating a proposal Wednesday that would shore up U.S.-Mexico border wall funding, offer a route to citizenship for DACA recipients, increase the number of judges and attorneys working to address the immigration court backlog and make voluntary worker verification systems permanent.
Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., who at one point supported the Graham-Durbin proposal, denied Wednesday he was ever a formal co-sponsor of that plan.
Graham and Durbin were initially leading a group of senators from both parties — among them Gardner and Bennet and later Rounds — in a four-pronged approach to codify DACA and overhaul other key elements of the immigration system.
It would have given a narrower group of DACA recipients a pathway to citizenship and allowed their parents to stay in the country on temporary work visas. It would have provided some money for “enhanced border security” and converted the diversity visa lottery system into one that would benefit immigrants with temporary protective status.
On January 11, Durbin and Graham went to the White House to discuss moving forward. They returned to the Capitol rebuffed by a president who suddenly feared his conservative base would reject any measure as expansive as the Graham-Durbin framework.
Since then, Graham and Durbin have struggled to salvage the core tenets of their proposal while making changes that would attract necessary support.
Part of the deal to end the three-day government shutdown in mid-January was that lawmakers from both parties would work to come up with legislation that could pass the Senate, either before the next shutdown deadline on February 8 or after the fact, when an open floor debate would get under way. That debate began Monday night.
Many expected the Graham-Durbin framework would be used as at least a starting point. But Trump has continued to refuse to sign anything into law that resembles that original blueprint.
Trump has put forward his own “four pillars” — a path to citizenship for 1.8 million Dreamers in exchange for $25 billion for the border wall and drastic reductions in the number of immigrants who could be sponsored by their family and an end to the diversity lottery program that lets immigrants be awarded green cards.
He has endorsed a hardline conservative proposal sponsored by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, Thom Tillis, R-N.C., David Perdue, R-Ga., and others that mirrors the White House plan. Trump sent out a statement urging senators to defeat any bills that do not include cuts to the number of immigrants who could be sponsored by family members and the diversity lottery program.
On Tuesday, Graham said that he and Durbin could use the Grassley framework to inform their own amendment.
“What I would say is, ‘let’s look at the Grassley bill and say, what would make it better, if you took it and changed it, how could you get (the) votes,’” Graham told reporters.
By Wednesday, it appeared clearer than ever that putting anything on the floor with Graham and Durbin’s name on it might not be worth the exercise.
“We’ve gotta get some more Republican votes, so I think that’s unlikely to get the votes,” said Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., one of Graham and Durbin’s staunchest allies.
He said that Trump’s lack of clarity up until one month ago regarding what he would and would not sign into law was “extremely frustrating,” and the president coming out with his own proposal late in the game “changed the debate.”
Even Trump saying 1.8 million undocumented immigrants should receive citizenship opportunities rather than just the 700,000 who directly benefit from the DACA program, Flake explained, created a scenario where Republicans “need(ed) to do more to satisfy the right” because offering citizenship to a larger population was “more generous.”
Perdue was more dismissive, saying Trump always supported a Grassley-like approach to immigration legislation and never officially came around to Graham-Durbin despite reports saying otherwise.
As two veterans of immigration overhaul debates, Graham and Durbin have been working with colleagues on other initiatives, including a group of two-dozen Senators of both parties who call themselves the “Common-Sense Coalition.”
Their offering would give Trump his $25 billion request for a border wall over a 10-year window, with Congressional oversight, in exchange for providing a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants brought into the country illegally by their parents as young children.
Graham was at the meeting Wednesday where lawmakers were putting finishing touches on the proposal, and sources said Graham’s and Durbin’s fingerprints would be on any successful product.
A few hours later, exiting a lunch meeting in the Capitol with Republican colleagues, Graham was unusually short with reporters.
“Goodbye,” he said as the elevator doors closed.
Anita Kumar of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed to this report.