Who Controls the GOP Senate? Many Say It’s Democrat Chuck Schumer

Minority leader’s success in budget negotiations with Mitch McConnell has conservatives worried as Congress turns to immigration

by Brendan Kirby | Updated 12 Feb 2018 at 6:59 AM

After taking a beating from his own supporters following an ill-fated government shutdown showdown in late January, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has been on a roll.

Over the past three weeks, Schumer has repeatedly outmaneuvered Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Last week, with Schumer’s support, Congress passed a two-year budget outline that repeals spending caps imposed in 2011.

The result means approval of hundreds of billions of dollars in additional spending that checks off numerous items on the progressive Democrat’s wish list for expansion of domestic government programs.

It is not apparent what Schumer had to concede in return, other than additional military spending. And that does not seem to be much of a concession; after all, Democratic members of Congress like to build weapons in their districts, too.

The one thing Schumer did not get in the budget was a “fix” for the expiring Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, created by former President Barack Obama via executive order in an action widely viewed as unconstitutional.

The DACA move gave quasi-legal status to young adult illegal immigrants who were brought to American as children. But Democrats will get a shot at amnesty, too, beginning Monday when the Senate takes up a “blank bill” to that end on the floor.

It's enough to make some observers wonder if Schumer could be any more successful if he had "majority" in his title.

"Mitch McConnell doesn't run the Senate. Chuck Schumer does," quipped Jason Pye, vice president of legislative affairs at the small-government activist group FreedomWorks.

Chris Chmielenski, director of content and activism at NumbersUSA, said it is fair to wonder whether Schumer is the real leader of the Senate.

"We've been asking that question for years," he said. NumbersUSA advocates tougher immigration policies and controls.

Christopher Devine, a political science professor at the University of Dayton in Ohio, said the Senate's arcane rules give a great deal of leverage to the minority party. Most measures require 60 votes, which in the current Senate, means Republicans have to win at least nine Democratic votes if the GOP senators stick together.

Schumer "got a pretty good deal." As a result, Devine said, the minority leader can block the majority party's agenda in many cases and negotiate huge concessions. But he was hard-pressed to think of another minority leader in recent history who has been as successful as Schumer in advancing his agenda rather than simply blocking the majority party.

"They seem to wield more power than you would expect for a minority party," he said. "I think it is fair to say he got a pretty good deal for his interests."

The way the budget battle played out has opponents of mass immigration worried about how the immigration debate might go. The Senate will start an open debate on immigration Monday, and McConnell has promised every senator will have a chance to offer amendments that will receive up-or-down votes.

"What we should have started from was the president's original position … I'd like to play cards with these guys."

"I don't work in Vegas. It's hard to put odds on something," said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). "What we should have started from was the president's original position … I'd like to play cards with these guys."

Mehlman was referring to a long list of principles that President Donald Trump laid down shortly after announcing in September 2017 that he would end DACA by March 5. It included a long list of border security measures and reform of the existing legal immigration system.

Since then, Trump has widened the population that would benefit — from about 690,000 DACA enrollees to 1.8 million young illegal immigrants — and narrowed his demands to full funding of a border wall and other security measures, including a gradual end to the ability of citizens to sponsor extended family members for immigration and the elimination of the diversity visa lottery, which awards about 50,000 green cards each year to applicants chosen randomly from around the world.

Supporters of the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act hope the process will lead to something close to what they have proposed — legal status and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants whose parents brought them to the country. And they don't want the law to include a border wall or an end to so-called chain migration.

Republicans divided on DACA. Mehlman said the danger for groups like his that favor lower levels of legal immigration and stricter enforcement of current immigration restrictions is that an open process could take advantage of Republican divisions.

"The Democrats have a unified position — they want a clean DREAM Act," he said. "The Republicans are all over the place."

Chmielenski of NumbersUSA said a backroom deal by McConnell and Schumer probably could result in legislation that would pass the chamber. But if it is truly an open process that allows for unlimited amendments, he said, the prospects for the final bill are dicier.

"If that's the way it goes, I don't think anything will pass," he said.

If the Senate did pass a bill, that would leave it up to the House of Representatives, where the last major amnesty bill died four years ago.

Related: Budget Hawks During Tax Debate, Democrats Now Silent on Deficits

Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has promised not to bring immigration legislation to the floor unless a majority of Republicans in the House support it and Trump would sign it. That would doom the effort — unless Trump swung his support behind it. The president's oscillation on DACA has troubled immigration hard-liners.

"Trump is the wild card," Chmielenski said. "We don't know."

But if Trump holds firm on his demands, Chmielenski said, Ryan would face a "revolt" in his caucus if he tried to muscle through a bill with mostly Democratic votes.

Devine, the Dayton political science professor, said the fact that conservatives felt betrayed by the budget debate could make an immigration deal harder, as Republicans in Congress grow weary of bucking their base so soon on another high-profile issue.

Devine added that the budget deal came together because defense hawks in the GOP and Democrats decided to achieve their goals by spending money on everyone's priorities. Immigration defies that kind of compromise, he said.

"DACA, or immigration, is not a problem you can solve by spending more money," he said.

PoliZette senior writer Brendan Kirby can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter.

(photo credit, homepage images: Chuck Schumer, CC BY 2.0, by Senate Democrats)

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