WASHINGTON — Congressional Democrats vowed Monday to continue their efforts to grant legal status to millions of unauthorized immigrants, a centerpiece of President Joe Biden’s immigration plan, after a top Senate official rejected their bid to include it in their $3.5 trillion social policy bill.
Sunday’s decision by the Senate parliamentarian threatened to scuttle what Biden and Democrats had considered their best chance in decades to enact an initiative that has been stymied amid partisan polarization and procedural obstacles. If they cannot do so as part of the far-reaching domestic policy measure, Democrats are unlikely to have another opportunity while they control the White House and both houses of Congress.
Top Democrats huddled Monday to discuss other ways to proceed, and pro-immigration activists, demoralized and outraged by the ruling from the Senate’s rules enforcer, promoted a large rally in D.C. and pledged intense lobbying efforts to try to change the outcome.
“It saddened me. It frustrated me. It angered me because so many lives are at stake,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the Senate majority leader. “We’re going to continue our fight.”
Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said lawmakers would meet again with the parliamentarian to try different strategies after she ruled that the proposal Democrats had offered did not have a direct enough effect on the federal budget to be included in the package.
“I certainly intend to keep working until we get to a yes,” he said. “We’re not going to take no for an answer.”
Democrats, who plan to push through their $3.5 trillion social safety net plan under special budget rules that shield it from a filibuster, are considering loading up the measure with several of their top policy priorities, testing the limits of Senate rules that strictly limit what can be included.
Among those proposals is one to grant legal status to several categories of unauthorized people, including those brought to the United States as children, known as “Dreamers”; immigrants who were granted Temporary Protected Status for humanitarian reasons; people working in the country under nonimmigrant visas; close to 1 million farmworkers; and millions more who are deemed “essential workers.”
Pro-immigration activists had pushed the plan as their best chance this Congress to improve the lives of millions of immigrants, after attempts to reach a bipartisan deal with Republicans on a separate piece of legislation fell apart.
But Elizabeth MacDonough, the Senate parliamentarian, wrote Sunday that the “policy changes of this proposal far outweigh the budgetary impact scored to it and it is not appropriate for inclusion in reconciliation,” according to a copy of her decision obtained by The New York Times.
That sent Democrats grasping for an alternative and energized activists to push back. Some called on Senate Democrats to overrule MacDonough. Others called for her to be fired. Still others said they planned to turn up the political heat on Democrats if they failed to deliver an immigration overhaul while the party controls both chambers of Congress and the presidency.
“People are upset, angry, determined,” said Frank Sharry, the director of the pro-immigrant organization America’s Voice. “We’re optimistic we can get to yes. If that doesn’t happen, then we’ll take it from there.”
Lorella Praeli, the co-president of Community Change Action, which has been pressing for an immigration overhaul, called MacDonough a “clear political actor,” and said that Democrats should not be bound by her advice.
She “serves at the pleasure of the majority leader,” Praeli said. “Nobody gets to hide behind her this year.”
With the parliamentarian’s decision, proponents were looking into several other options they could pursue to try to bring about the same result, including moving up the date for a process known as immigration registry. Registry allows otherwise law-abiding unauthorized immigrants who have been in the United States continuously since a certain date to adjust their status and gain a pathway to citizenship.
The current date, established in 1986, is set at Jan. 1, 1972, disqualifying the “Dreamers” and many others; setting a new, more recent date would be a simple way to allow them to gain legal status. Menendez said he favored the option because Democrats could argue that they were “not changing the law; we are just updating a date.”
But Republicans argued the proposals had no place in the reconciliation bill.
“After decades of failing to enact their amnesty agenda, Democrats tried this latest, unprecedented gambit,” said Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the top Republican. “It was inappropriate, and I’m glad it failed.”
Many immigration activists refused to accept defeat.
“It’s an important moment for our country,” said Kerri Talbot, the deputy director of the Immigration Hub. “We’ve been trying to work with Republicans for many years, but they have failed to come to the table, and so we see this as an opportunity to go ahead and address some of the issues that have been waiting to be addressed for decades.”
Activists urged supporters to join a march Tuesday, led by CASA and the Service Employees International Union, with stops outside the Washington, D.C., headquarters of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Capitol, to call for a path to citizenship for millions of unauthorized migrants.
The parliamentarian is a little-known but crucial figure in the life of the Senate, which is largely governed by precedents and arcane rules that are subject to interpretation. The post becomes particularly important when it comes to reconciliation, which is supposed to be limited to provisions that have a direct impact on federal spending or revenues.
A nonpartisan career official who has worked in the parliamentarian’s office since 1999, MacDonough has heard detailed arguments from both sides in closed-door meetings on the immigration proposal.
MacDonough’s decisions are merely advisory, but several Democratic senators have indicated they would be reluctant to overrule her, and it is not clear that a majority would support doing so to win adoption of the immigration plan. She did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Menendez pushed back against calls for her ouster, saying they were “not constructive.”
The budgetary cost of the changes in immigration law — which affect health care benefits, Medicaid spending and tax credits — exceeds $139 billion over 10 years, according to preliminary figures from the Congressional Budget Office. Democrats estimate the legalization push would add $1.5 trillion to the U.S. economy over the next decade, creating more than 400,000 jobs.