Democrats enter this week’s immigration debate with the goal of protecting illegal immigrant Dreamers but with little strategy for how to get there, saying they will take their chances when the fight plays out on the floor of the Senate.
Party leaders don’t have a Democratic plan in hand, nor do they have a sense for what concessions they are willing to make to reach a deal with President Trump, beyond some sort of funding for his border wall.
Republicans, meanwhile, are struggling for unanimity within their own ranks with Mr. Trump’s four-point framework unable to win over all 51 members of his party in the Senate.
“This is a wild card week,” said Sen. James Lankford, an Oklahoma Republican who is co-sponsoring the legislative version of Mr. Trump’s plan but is also working with the bipartisan moderates who have dubbed themselves the Common Sense Caucus and are reaching for their own deal.
The Senate voted 97-1 Monday evening to head off the chance of a filibuster at the start of the immigration debate, setting up action as soon as Tuesday on proposals to deal with Dreamers, security enhancements and bigger changes to the legal immigration system.
Republican leaders are backing a bill that enshrines Mr. Trump’s framework, coupling citizenship rights for up to 1.8 million Dreamers with $25 billion in border wall funding, an end to the catch-and-release policies that free illegal immigrants into the interior of the U.S. and faster deportations for visitors who overstay their permits.
That proposal, led by Sens. Chuck Grassley of Iowa and John Cornyn of Texas, would also eliminate the Diversity Visa Lottery, reusing those visas to lower the existing immigration backlog, and impose stricter limits on extended family members who can be sponsored for future immigration.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, threw his support behind that plan Monday.
Republicans said it was the only proposal suggested so far that Mr. Trump will sign.
“The president’s framework is not an opening bid. It is a best and final offer,” Sen. Tom Cotton, Arkansas Republican, told reporters. “It’s time for the Democrats to start making concessions and take ‘yes’ for an answer.”
It’s not clear what alternatives Democrats will offer.
Sen. Christopher A. Coons, Delaware Democrat, has embraced a plan with Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, that would grant a generous amnesty to perhaps 3 million illegal immigrants in exchange for more foreign aid for Central America and a promise to study border security needs in the future.
He said he is waiting on his party’s leadership to decide whether his proposal will get a vote.
“The way you find out if you can get 60 is by putting it on the floor,” he said.
Mr. Coons and Mr. Lankford were both working as part of the bipartisan group searching for a solution from the political middle. That group has struggled and could fracture into several different proposals.
“We’re still working on it,” said Sen. Mike Rounds, South Dakota Republican. “This place is never in a hurry.”
The main sticking points are how to appropriate border security funds and how to deal with parents of Dreamers.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat and party leader who has been fighting for immigration reforms for nearly two decades, said he is not sure what proposals will be offered.
“I don’t have a list of amendments on either side that will be offered,” said Mr. Durbin.
He has long pushed for a “clean” bill to legalize Dreamers, pushing off the bigger decisions on immigration and security for the future. But he acknowledged that even if he offers that, it won’t go anywhere.
“We don’t have 60 votes for that,” he said.
Mr. Durbin had been working on a deal with Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, to legalize more than 2 million Dreamers while making a small down payment on the border wall, altering the timing on some links in the chain of family migration and revamping the Diversity Visa Lottery.
The Illinois Democrat said there are likely five or six Republicans ready to vote for a plan along those lines, but that’s still shy of the 60 needed for passage.
Mr. Durbin said part of the problem is the two sides can’t even agree on a definition for border security.
While Democrats have said they are open to fencing, manpower and technology, Republicans argue about half of illegal immigrants don’t come across the U.S.-Mexico border but enter legally as visitors and don’t leave.
Republicans say the border can’t be secure unless the conditions that entice people to attempt illegal immigration are solved, such as the jobs magnet, an asylum system susceptible to fraud, and easier treatment of illegal immigrant children and families from Central America than from Mexico.
“The problem is all these issues do connect,” Mr. Lankford said.
Democrats said that was reaching too far. “Believe me, we’re not going to solve that problem this week,” Mr. Durbin said.
The schedule is working against prospects for a deal.
The Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program is due to be phased out March 5 — though a federal judge has restarted the program, complicating matters.
Senators are slated to be gone on a weeklong vacation next week, and whatever the chamber approves must also pass the House, leaving little margin for error if the March 5 deadline is to be met.
Democratic leaders said that is all the more reason why the debate should be limited.
“This is the moment for a narrow bill, and every ounce of our energy is going into finding one that can pass,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York Democrat.
Amid the confusion on Capitol Hill, the White House has an endgame for the freewheeling debate, a senior administration official told The Washington Times.
The official declined to give details before the voting gets underway but assured The Times that the administration felt in control of what legislation the immigration debate would produce.