WASHINGTON — As the Senate takes up the politically charged issue of immigration this week, nearly every senator will be jockeying for the spotlight — offering amendments and jousting with their colleagues.
But the legislative outcome — if there is one — will almost certainly be determined by a handful of key players who have leading roles in making the arguments and executing the legislative maneuvers that will shape the bill.
Here’s our take on who to watch:
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.
The No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, Durbin has made the fate of the DREAMers a personal crusade ever since he was approached by an undocumented teenaged piano prodigy in Chicago nearly 20 years ago. Durbin introduced the first bill to give the DREAMers legal status in 2001. Today, he’s the Democrats' main negotiator on immigration, and he helped craft a bipartisan compromise that could be the basis for whatever passes the Senate this week.
Protecting the DREAMers “is the civil rights issue of our time," Durbin said on the Senate floor last month.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.
Flake is pro-immigration Republican who helped force Senate GOP leaders to address the fate of the DREAMers. He’s also one of Durbin’s principle GOP partners in crafting a bipartisan immigration bill. If the Senate passes a bipartisan bill this week, Flake’s fingerprints will be on it, even though he has already announced that he will retire at the end of this year.
Flake has also been an acerbic critic of President Trump, blasting him for his anti-immigrant comments and his conflicting positions on the DREAMers. “Trying to divine what the president wants on immigration, and on DACA, has been impossible,” the Arizona Republican said recently. “It changes hourly."
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark.
An immigration hardliner from Arkansas, Cotton’s views on cutting legal immigration have become increasingly influential inside the White House. Cotton is a key sponsor of the RAISE Act, which would cut legal immigration in half. President Trump endorsed Cotton’s bill, even though it has zero chance of passage in Congress. Cotton has also backed Trump’s immigration plan, released last month, and he co-sponsored a Senate version the White House proposal, which would cut immigration by at least 25% and grant legal status to 1.8 million DREAMers.
Trump’s plan is “generous and humane," Cotton has said, "while also being responsible.”
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
One year into his job as the Senate’s Democratic leader, Schumer led his troops into a three-day government shutdown over the DREAMers last month, which ended when Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell promised Democrats a floor debate on the issue. Some liberal Democrats were furious that all Schumer got was the promise of a debate. But now that McConnell is making good on that pledge, Democrats could win a major legislative victory on a key priority despite holding very little power in Washington.
"This is a very difficult issue," Schumer said on the Senate floor Tuesday morning. "But we can get something done. We're on the verge."
Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
The Senate Republican leader is the reason this week’s immigration debate is happening. McConnell controls the Senate floor and has promised not to tip the scales toward any proposal as the legislative process unfolds — a reversal after the Kentucky Republican initially resisted demands for a free-flowing debate. Still, many Democrats deeply distrust McConnell. And on Monday, he endorsed President Trump’s approach to immigration, saying it had the best chance for passing the House and winning Trump’s signature.
“I believe it deserves support of every senator who’s ready to move beyond making points and actually making a law,” McConnell said Tuesday on the Senate floor.
There are also a few key Senate clubs to keep your eyes on:
Judiciary Committee Republicans
A group of Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee introduced legislation mirroring what the White House has outlined as an acceptable solution. The all-Republican group includes some of the caucus’ most vocal immigration hardliners — Cotton joins Judiciary Chair Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Sens. John Cornyn, R-Tex., David Perdue, R-Ga., and Joni Ernst, R-Iowa.
But Sens. Thom Tillis of North Carolina and James Lankford of Oklahoma have expressed more moderate views on the topic. They say they're backing the bill because it’s the only legislation that can become law.
The group got a boost Monday afternoon when McConnell said he supported their bill, but it’s still not clear they have the votes.
Gang of six
Five of the original “Gang of Eight” members who drafted the comprehensive immigration reform bill that passed the Senate in 2013— Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., Bob Menendez, D-N.J., Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Durbin — gave immigration another shot. Republican senator, Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, joined the group rounding it to six and they spent months negotiating an immigration deal.
The group eventually came to an agreement that addressed the “four pillars” Trump had been looking for — protections for DREAMers, funding for a border wall, changes to family-based migration and the diversity visa lottery — and brought on a handful of other Republicans in support. But the president said their proposal does not go far enough.
Centrist 'Talking Stick' group
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. brought together more than 20 of their moderate colleagues last month to meet and discuss a proposal to re-open the government after a fight over a short-term spending bill. Part of the process involved a "talking stick" that members would pass around to have their turn to speak. It worked, and the group has now turned to immigration. They’ve been huddling frequently and say they’re working on a compromise bill, but details have not yet emerged.
And don't forget...
Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
The Speaker of the House has no role in a Senate debate, but if the Senate manages to pass a bill, its future will be entirely in Ryan’s hands. He has been cagey about whether he will bring a Senate-passed bill to the House floor, particularly if it is strongly opposed by the most conservative faction of House Republicans. For now, Ryan can only watch the Senate debate, and wait his turn on center stage. But no bill will get to the president without approval of the House, and Ryan controls that process.