ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The Senate is beginning an unusual debate on immigration. There's no actual bill so far, no certainty on how long this debate will go or what it will ultimately produce. Democrats like Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin are cautiously optimistic.
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DICK DURBIN: I think the American people are going to watch this debate and hope that we do end up with something. And I think we can. I hope we will.
SHAPIRO: To discuss what that something might be, NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis joins us now. Hi, Sue.
SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.
SHAPIRO: I'm thinking of that famous line from down the "Downton Abbey." What is a week end?
SHAPIRO: What is an open debate in the Senate?
DAVIS: You know, true confession - I'm kind of excited to see how this week goes in the Senate because this just isn't something I've really covered before.
DAVIS: What they're agreeing to have is essentially just a debate. There is no underlying bill that they're talking about amending, which is what makes this so rare. I even called the Senate Historian's Office to ask, is there any parallels to this? And even they were like, yeah, there's really nothing we can compare this to. There are no shortage of proposals on immigration. At least half a dozen pieces of legislation have been introduced on this. Obviously, President Trump has put forward his own proposal regarding what to do with people who were brought here illegally as children.
And what essentially they're going to do is jockey back and forth these ideas on immigration and see if they can cobble together a bill. Remember; this is the Senate, so they need a supermajority. They need something that can get to 60 votes and see if it can clear the Senate. It's going to take up the entire week. It's quite possible it takes even longer. They have three weeks until that March 5 deadline to come up with a solution.
SHAPIRO: But when there's no real legislation under debate, though, how does it work? Is it like each senator votes on every proposal that a senator makes? Or are they trying to write a bill together on the floor? Or - like, what's going on?
DAVIS: It's a little bit of both. So what - essentially, what the leadership - Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer will talk with their senators and they will come up with loose agreements on what kind of amendments will get votes, what the vote thresholds will be and whether they become part of a final package. I think you're going to see two things happening this week. One's going to be very public - that's the debate you're going to be able to tune into C-SPAN and watch - and the debate going on behind the scenes in the cloakrooms, in the leader's offices.
I would note that there are a group of moderate senators who are also meeting on the side, trying to come up with a solution from the middle to see if they can get their leadership and the president on board. And Dick Durbin, who I spoke with today, did say that he trusts Mitch McConnell in this process. He believes he's going to play it straight. He doesn't believe he's going to try and tilt the playing field. And they are going to at least try and see what the Senate can produce.
SHAPIRO: We've heard some senators say, perhaps pessimistically, that they think the only thing people be able to agree on is a short-term fix for DACA recipients.
SHAPIRO: How much optimism is there generally in the Senate right now?
DAVIS: The curious thing about this issue is that it is an issue that absolutely has majorities in both the Senate - House and Senate. It's just not clear that there is a political will to get it done. Again, where the president comes down on this is going to be very critical. The White House so far has not shown any ability to wiggle or negotiate on their proposal.
Part of what's the toughest part of this is the restrictions that the White House is seeking on legal immigration, specifically on family unification policies. And, yes, there is already talk that if all else fails, the best last solution could be just a one-year extension of that DACA program - maybe a little bit longer than that - to get people through the midterm elections. And they could just keep fighting over it into next year.
SHAPIRO: And if the Senate does pass a bipartisan deal, there is still the House. House Speaker Paul Ryan has said he's committed to a bipartisan DACA fix. What do you think could happen there?
DAVIS: The House is essentially in wait-and-see mode. They're not going to really move forward with anything until they know what the Senate can pass and if the president will support it. This is a much tougher vote for Republicans in the House. This is such a core issue to their base voters. Paul Ryan doesn't want to put anything on the floor that doesn't have the support of the president, that would make it an election year issue. So he wants to make sure the president's on board and it is certain to pass before he says what the House will do.
SHAPIRO: NPR congressional correspondent Sue Davis, thanks.
DAVIS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.