WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden’s sweeping immigration plan ran into quick resistance from key Senate Republicans, including some who championed a similar effort eight years ago.
While immigration activists widely praised the legislative proposal, senior Senate aides in both parties expressed skepticism that it has a path, at least without major changes, to winning the 60 votes needed to defeat a filibuster, which means at least 10 GOP votes.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a key figure in the “Gang of Eight” overhaul in 2013 that passed the Senate but died in the Republican-controlled House, called it a non-starter.
“There are many issues I think we can work cooperatively with President-elect Biden, but a blanket amnesty for people who are here unlawfully isn’t going to be one of them,” he said in a statement the day before Biden was sworn in.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he doubts Biden’s plan can pass, describing it as “to the left” of the 2013 legislation that he helped craft, citing fewer provisions to beef up border security.
Graham, who took on a more hard-right posture during former President Donald Trump’s tenure, said the likely endgame is a smaller deal centered on codifying the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that then-President Barack Obama set up unilaterally.
“I think probably the space in a 50-50 Senate would be some kind of DACA deal,” Graham told NBC News on Thursday. “Comprehensive immigration is going to be a tough sell given this environment but doing DACA, I think, is possible.”
Rubio and Graham are the two remaining GOP members of the group that crafted the 2013 bill, making their resistance a significant warning for Biden. His plan would grant an eight-year path to citizenship to the estimated 11 million people in the U.S. illegally after they pass a background check and pay their taxes, while linking green cards to economic conditions and easing asylum restrictions.
In a symbolic recognition of the U.S. as a nation of immigrants, Biden’s plan would also change the word “alien” to “noncitizen” in the context of immigration law.
Of the 13 GOP senators who voted for the 2013 immigration bill, just five remain: Rubio, Graham and John Hoeven of North Dakota, Susan Collins of Maine, and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. It was produced after Obama’s re-election victory when many Republican elites decided the party needed to embrace a more liberal immigration system. But Trump upended that calculation in a successful 2016 campaign that mobilized conservative voters around an anti-immigration platform.
The Senate GOP’s campaign arm, which is focused on recapturing the majority in 2022, quickly dubbed the Biden immigration plan as “amnesty and open borders.”
Even if all 50 Democrats unite, finding 10 Republicans for Biden’s bill would be a daunting task.
“I don’t think I can even count to one,” said a senior GOP aide who wasn’t authorized to speak about the plan’s prospects, arguing that the path to citizenship is “an issue” for Republicans.
The aide posited that Biden’s plan was an attempt to placate progressives and not a “take it or leave it” product. Adding border provisions could help but may not be enough, the aide said.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., tore into Biden’s plan on Thursday, calling it “a massive proposal for blanket amnesty that would gut enforcement of American laws while creating huge new incentives for people to rush here illegally at the same time.”
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., said he has “very serious concerns” with Biden’s immigration policy. He is holding up a Senate vote on confirming Homeland Security secretary nominee Alejandro Mayorkas, saying he should first explain how he’ll enforce immigration laws.
Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., and Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., said Thursday they’d study the plan more closely before commenting.
Among Democrats in both chambers, Biden’s plan was met with wide praise.
“I personally would support all of the elements in it,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii.
Some Democrats want to make the plan more progressive.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., called Biden’s proposal “very, very strong,” but said she wants some additional provisions surrounding immigrant detention.
“It’s so wonderful to have a president who is finally looking at immigrants in a positive light,” she said.
And if Republicans block the bill in the Senate?
“Reform the filibuster if Republicans are refusing to go along,” Jayapal said.
One senior Democratic staffer said the political appetite among Republicans for a broad immigration overhaul doesn’t appear to be there, saying: “I don’t know where you would start to find 10.”
The staffer said the filibuster of an immigration overhaul as well as other Democratic priorities, like protecting voting rights, would elevate a debate inside the party about abolishing the 60-vote rule.
Garrett Haake and Frank Thorp V contributed.