Can The Common Sense Caucus Influence Leading Lawmakers?

Jan 25, 2018
Originally published on January 26, 2018 11:45 am
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The White House has put out a draft framework for an immigration bill. It includes $25 billion for a border wall, a path to citizenship for DACA recipients and the DACA-eligible. It also ends the diversity visa lottery system. There is a bipartisan group of senators who argue that they can shape a bill that will pass. But as NPR's Kelsey Snell reports, the question is, will the rest of Washington listen to them?

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: The hottest place to be this week on Capitol Hill seems to be the inside of a quiet Senate office building far from the debate on the Senate floor. More than two dozen Republicans and Democrats are huddling together without Senate leaders to talk about DACA. That's nearly a third of the entire Senate in one room. Democrat Heidi Heitkamp hopped on the Senate subway after her last vote of the week to head back to the immigration talks. She says it's a pretty big deal that a group this big is willing to put everything aside to negotiate.

HEIDI HEITKAMP: The single most important thing that's happening is dialogue. And you know, if you said, is there resolution, (laughter) I'd say not at this point. But there also is commitment - commitment to resolve this issue.

SNELL: It's a tough balance. Republicans want stepped-up border security. Democrats say they need a path to citizenship for the roughly 700,000 immigrants who are in the country illegally after being brought here as children. South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham has emerged as one of the group's leaders. He says the goal is to stop hurling insults and start figuring out what specific policies are needed to pass an immigration bill in the Senate.

LINDSEY GRAHAM: You're not going to get a bill through the United States Senate without 60 votes. That's called the legislative process.

SNELL: Graham and Maine Republican Susan Collins say they're taking President Trump at his word. He says he'll sign any immigration bill that can pass in Congress. The solution, they say, is to find the exact political center on immigration so they can write a bill that satisfies most of the Senate. It was their idea, after all, that helped end the government shutdown. They offered to reopen the government in exchange for a promise to vote on immigration. But cutting a deal like that is a lofty goal.

Congress is deeply polarized. Activists on both sides are putting pressure on members not to compromise too much. It also skirts the regular order of things in Congress, where it's common for leaders to hash out legislation behind closed doors. This group thinks they can upend that system by first getting support for their proposals and then handing them over to Senate leaders. But even Collins recognizes that they are hardly the only negotiating game in town.

SUSAN COLLINS: There are many other groups that are important - obviously the Judiciary Committee.

SNELL: They're the critical committee that's in charge of immigration issues. And the list goes on.

COLLINS: There are other senators like Senator Lankford that are working - and Senator Tillis - that are working on bills. There are some of the original bills (laughter) that have been out there.

SNELL: There are so many groups that even senators can't keep track.

JOHN CORNYN: Is that in the Senate?

SNELL: Yeah.

CORNYN: Oh, OK. I hadn't heard of that caucus before. Maybe I should apply to join.

SNELL: That's Senator John Cornyn. He's the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, and he's leading his own set of talks with Dick Durbin, his Democratic counterpart. The list of important voices in the debate also includes President Trump and House Republicans. House conservatives in particular want stricter rules for who can come to the country, and they want significant increases in border security, including money to build Trump's wall. Those conservatives are far from the center. Instead they're much closer on policy to people like Senator David Perdue, who takes a harder line. On Wednesday, Perdue said he is certain his position is being heard.

DAVID PERDUE: Well, it's daily contact with the White House. I spoke with the president this morning. I'm not speaking to the president every day.

SNELL: Right.

PERDUE: But he called me this morning about this very issue.

SNELL: All of these talks may produce an immigration bill, or they could fall by the wayside. Now that President Trump has released his own immigration pitch, that could become the only negotiating game in town. Kelsey Snell, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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