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Senate's Open Debate Fails To Pass Immigration Legislation

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Republicans said they wanted to find a fix for DACA. Democrats said it was a must. Even President Trump said it should happen. But after a week of debate there is no deal to protect the people, brought to this country illegally as children. And the current protections for the so-called DREAMers are set to expire on March 5. Here's Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speaking yesterday.

MITCH MCCONNELL: Well, Mr. President, I think it's safe to say it's been a disappointing week.

MARTIN: Senator Chris Coons joins us now. He's a Democrat from Delaware. He was part of a bipartisan group that proposed one bill that was ultimately defeated. There were several others that faced the same fate. Senator, thanks so much for being with us.

CHRIS COONS: Thank you, Rachel.

MARTIN: So Mitch McConnell had said a thousand flowers were going to bloom during this open debate process, that all kinds of plans were going to get a fair hearing. And then ultimately, all of those blooms died, apparently. What happened?

COONS: Well, Rachel, I'm heartsick about the outcome yesterday, having worked so hard to try and advance two different bipartisan bills. First, I was honored that Senator McCain of Arizona, who's long been active on immigration reform issues, asked me to co-sponsor with him in the Senate a bipartisan bill from the house that was one of the four bills voted on yesterday. We got 52 votes.

I worked very hard with the bipartisan Common Sense Coalition, as you mentioned, to hammer out a tough compromise - one that would've provided robust funding for the border, for border security and would've provided a pathway to citizenship for 1.8 million DREAMers but also touched on one other pillar that President Trump was demanding. We thought we were getting 60 votes on this right up until yesterday morning, when the president issued a veto threat, when the Department of Homeland Security started spreading aggressive and, I think, untruthful attacks on the bill. And ultimately, it got 54 votes.

MARTIN: So...

COONS: Rachel, the one thing that got 60 votes yesterday was the defeat of President Trumps extreme immigration agenda. The last vote was on the Grassley-Cotton bill that Trump endorsed. It lost by 60 against, only 39 for.

MARTIN: So let's parse this a little bit. The White House bill that you just mentioned that didn't get - overwhelmingly was rejected...

COONS: (Laughter) Yes.

MARTIN: ...Wanted four things - more money for border security, DACA protections, eliminating the diversity visa lottery and so-called chain migration.

COONS: Right.

MARTIN: So your bill - the Common Sense Coalition bill - was an attempt to set aside the issues with legal immigration the White House wanted and to focus more explicitly on border security and DACA.

COONS: Correct.

MARTIN: So why didn't that work? Why didn't you get the votes you needed?

COONS: Because the president rejected it publicly and aggressively on the day of the vote. And the president and senior White House and DHS leaders called individual republicans to push them hard not to vote for it. Had the president stayed silent, I'm confident we would've gotten 60 votes. In the end, what it shows is that if the president insists on his extreme agenda, it will not ever pass the Senate.

MARTIN: So what does this mean going forward? I mean, you're telling me that you think you could've had the Republican votes you needed to get to 60, but the threat of a veto turned some Republicans.

COONS: Yes.

MARTIN: So what does this mean moving forward?

COONS: Well, this is a crisis of the president's creation, I'll remind you. The roughly 800,000 young Americans - those who were brought here by their parents from another country illegally but have known no other country but our own and who we have all agreed, the president including - we want to find a way to allow them to stay here to remain contributing parts of our community, our society, employed, in school, in our military. Those folks had legal protection before the president invalidated or repealed President Obama's executive order. He set a deadline of March 5.

Because there are two federal district courts that have put that on hold, they can't be deported for probably another few months. I think we need to come back and address this again. We need to take another try at it because the overwhelming majority of Americans want DREAMers to be protected and want us to invest in border security.

MARTIN: But is this going to end up on the Democrats' shoulders if you can't protect these people...

COONS: How could it possibly...

MARTIN: ...Who are here with these protections? If the compromise that needs to be made is to concede issues about so-called chain migration or the visa lottery system, you're saying you're unwilling to make those compromises in order to keep the DACA recipients safe?

COONS: We've already made, I think, a big concession. What the president was demanding wasn't just this year's funding for border security, wasn't just 2 and a half billion in new investments in border security but was that we hand him 25 billion with no oversight or review by Congress. Just give it to him as a trust fund and let him build whatever he wants and use it in whatever way he wants.

The bipartisan group came together. We got briefings from DHS. We came away convinced there are responsible investments we can make in border security. But to suggest that just because we won't abandon family migration, which has been the basis of immigration in this country for decades, that somehow we bore the responsibility for a crisis the president created - I reject that, Rachel.

MARTIN: Senator Chris Coons, Democrat from Delaware, thank you so much for talking with us.

COONS: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.