WASHINGTON — An immigration debate on Tuesday in the Senate that promised to be freewheeling and democratic got off instead to a rocky start, with Democrats and Republicans in a standoff over how the debate should proceed.
But even as the floor debate faltered, a bipartisan group of senators was working behind the scenes to draft an immigration proposal that could garner the 60 votes necessary to overcome a filibuster.
At stake is the fate of hundreds of thousands of young immigrants brought to the country illegally as children, known as Dreamers, who have been shielded from deportation under an Obama-era program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. President Trump has rescinded the program, which is set to expire March 5, and has given lawmakers until then to come up with a replacement.
Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, had set aside this week for debate on legislation that would protect the young immigrants, and address other matters including border security and the wall that the president has proposed on the southern border. In an early morning Twitter post on Tuesday, Mr. Trump cast the debate as the Dreamers’ “last chance,” and encouraged the two parties to work together.
“Negotiations on DACA have begun,” the president wrote. “Republicans want to make a deal and Democrats say they want to make a deal. Wouldn’t it be great if we could finally, after so many years, solve the DACA puzzle. This will be our last chance, there will never be another opportunity! March 5.”
But in the Capitol, Mr. McConnell and his Democratic counterpart, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, were unable to come to terms on an agreement that would get the debate underway in earnest.
Mr. McConnell sought to open with a vote on legislation to punish so-called sanctuary cities, which refuse to cooperate with federal immigration officials. But Mr. Schumer objected, on the grounds that such a measure is unrelated to DACA. Without the Democratic leader’s consent, debate cannot begin until midnight Tuesday, or very early Wednesday morning. Republicans were left fuming in frustration.
“This is the debate they said they wanted,” Mr. McConnell, sounding irked, told reporters Tuesday. “I said we’d have an open and fair process. We’re trying to do that, and the sooner we get started, the better because we need to wrap up this week.”
Whether senators can stick to that schedule remains an open question. The chamber is scheduled to be in recess next week, but some lawmakers are urging that the immigration debate be continued after the recess if no resolution is reached by Friday.
“The preference obviously is to finish,” said Senator Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona. “You never want to have a break right in the middle of a debate. That’s not optimal. But it’s better than letting it die.”
Immigration is one of the most difficult and contentious issues to come before Congress. The last time the Senate debated immigration, in 2013, the matter was on the floor for weeks. It culminated in Senate passage of a comprehensive immigration overhaul with 68 votes, but the measure never got a vote in the House.
This time, Mr. Trump has insisted that any bill address what the White House is calling “four pillars”: protecting the DACA recipients; beefing up border security, including funding for the president’s proposed border wall; ending or severely limiting family-based migration; and doing away with the diversity visa lottery, which is aimed at encouraging immigration from underrepresented nations.
Mr. McConnell has embraced a Republican plan that would meet the president’s conditions. But the proposal, drafted by a group of Republicans led by Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, does not appear to have garnered the backing of 60 senators.
Other proposals are also floating around the Capitol, including a “skinny bill” or “two-pillar bill” that would pair an extension of the DACA program with money for border security. Some Democrats say that is the path most likely to produce a measure that 60 senators can support.
“I’m very optimistic,” said Senator Bill Nelson, Democrat of Florida and a member of the bipartisan group, called the Common Sense Coalition, that has been negotiating behind the scenes. “I think at the end of the day, what it’s going to be is a simple solution. You’re going to take care of the DACA kids and their parents in exchange for doing the wall.”
But Mr. Trump has said he would not sign such a bill, and some senators say they consider the “skinny” approach a waste of time.
“They think that the best we can do is a baby step,” Senator John Kennedy, Republican of Louisiana, said, referring to those who are advocating a narrower bill. “And I don’t agree with that. I want to solve this problem. I think this is a case where moderation is for monks. Let’s go solve the problem.”
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