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Senate Turns to Immigration Amid Return of Shutdown Rhetoric

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

As Senate Democrats praised the GOP majority for a new era of openness, they were already preparing for an abrupt turn when the chamber's attention focuses on immigration.  

"What we have seen over the last several weeks is the Senate I remember, the Senate I was elected to, the Senate where there was active debate, deliberation, amendments," Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin said on the Senate floor. "For some members, it is a new experience. I hope in our role as the minority we can work with the senators with a feeling of mutual respect to achieve at least debate on the floor, if not some significant legislation."  

The Illinois Democrat, who has played the role of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's foil on the floor in the absence of Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., expanded on that point in a conversation with reporters. He said that other than one "Thursday night massacre" — an evening session that had Democrats crying foul about debate time — the process had worked well.  

"It's no fun being in the minority, and I hope it ends soon, but as long as we're in the minority, I think we should try to be constructive," Durbin said, adding that during the pipeline debate, Democrats "didn't use the tactics that had been institutionalized under the Republican minority."  

One of the GOP's favorite chess moves from its time in the minority is expected to return Tuesday afternoon, however. Democrats are planning to block proceeding to a House-passed Homeland Security appropriations bill that would also negate President Barack Obama's executive action on immigration.  

It's a turnabout from a few months ago, when Democrats were in charge and railed against Republicans whenever they would vote to block debate on a bill.  

"Our goal is to keep the Democrats united, and make it clear to Sen. McConnell and the Senate Republicans that this House approach is unacceptable," Durbin said on a Jan. 30 conference call, pointing to support from Democrats for a clean Homeland Security funding bill from Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H.  

"The Republicans are more frightened by DREAMers than they are by ISIS," Durbin said in a reference to children brought here illegally by their parents. "They are not concerned about whether or not the Department of Homeland Security is funded."  

The talking point is a close cousin of one used on Jan. 29 by the No. 3 Democratic leader, Charles E. Schumer of New York.  

"It seems our Republican colleagues are willing to shut down the government despite the fact that we have such security needs here in this country," Schumer said. "They dislike DREAMers more than they dislike ISIS, and it's just unbelievable."  

But the decision by Senate Democrats to filibuster taking up the House bill could leave them more exposed to criticism that they would be responsible if DHS funding dries up at the end of February, leaving Border Patrol agents and many others at the department wondering when they will get their paychecks.  

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., the new chairman of the Judiciary subcommittee that oversees immigration, offered a window into that line of attack last week on the Senate floor.  

"The Democrats are saying we're not even going to go to this bill that would fund homeland security?" Sessions asked, highlighting a CQ Roll Call report from Jan. 29. "Sen. McConnell is saying you can have your relevant amendments, and if you don't like the language the House put in that says the money can only go to lawful activities, you can offer an amendment to take it out, but if you don't have the votes, you lose. That's the way the system should work."  

McConnell made a brief appearance on the floor on Jan. 30 that included setting the procedural gears in motion for the Tuesday afternoon test vote, saying he saw "no reason" for his Democratic counterparts to stop the process dead in its tracks.  

“It’s a debate that will challenge our colleagues on the other side with a simple proposition: Do they think presidents, of either party, should have the power to simply ignore laws they don’t like?" McConnell asked. "Will our Democrat colleagues work with us to defend key democratic ideals like separation of powers and the rule of law, or will they stand tall for the idea that partisan exercises of raw power are good things?"  

The Democratic caucus proved its power as a minority recently, when enough Democrats voted to turn back McConnell's bid to limit debate on the pipeline legislation, a move they thought was premature. But after a slew of additional amendments, the bill reached its inevitable conclusion, having more than 60 supporters.  

The dynamic is different with immigration, because, as written, the underlying bill doesn't have the votes to break a filibuster. And opponents of the bill got new ammunition on Jan. 29, even setting aside complaints about the effect on recipients of deferred action, with the Congressional Budget Office reporting that the bill's immigration provisions would increase the deficit.  

A bid to move around the immigration standoff would face no shortage of opposition from conservatives such as Sen. Ted Cruz, though.  

"My view is that Republicans need to honor the commitments we made to the voters to stop President Obama's illegal and unconstitutional amnesty," the Texas Republican told CQ Roll Call. "For several months now, I've called for us to every constitutional check and balance we have to rein in the president's illegal action."  

While Cruz was focused on the confirmation process for attorney general nominee Loretta Lynch during that brief interview, he did add  that the GOP "should use the power of the purse, the most potent authority that Congress has."  

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