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Democrats blocked from including immigration reform in party-line spending bill

The Senate parliamentarian on Sunday rejected Democrats’ push to include a pathway to legal status in their social spending plan, a blow to the party’s efforts to enact immigration reform.

In the decision, a copy of which was obtained by POLITICO, the parliamentarian determined that the Democrats’ proposal is “by any standard a broad, new immigration policy” and that the policy change “substantially outweighs the budgetary impact of that change.”

Democrats have vowed to pursue an alternative proposal to allow immigration provisions in their planned multitrillion-dollar party-line social spending bill should they disagree with the ruling from the nonpartisan Senate rules arbiter, and two of them immediately promised to pursue that in a Sunday night statement. But it’s unclear how new reasoning for immigration provisions with the same ultimate effect could win over the parliamentarian, meaning that the new ruling likely closes the path forward for providing legal status through Democrats-only legislation this Congress.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Sunday evening that Democrats are “deeply disappointed in the decision” but plan to meet with the Senate parliamentarian in the coming days and pursue other options.

“Our economy depends more than ever on immigrants,” Schumer said. “Despite putting their lives on the line during the pandemic and paying their fair share of taxes, they remain locked out of the federal assistance that served as a lifeline for so many families. We will continue fighting to pursue the best path forward to grant them the ability to obtain lawful status.”

Schumer’s remarks were echoed by Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.). A White House spokesperson reiterated that President Joe Biden “supports efforts by Congress to include a pathway to citizenship in the reconciliation package and is grateful to Congressional leadership for all of the work they are doing to make this a reality. “

With bipartisan talks stalled, Democrats widely viewed the social spending package — set to advance through the so-called budget reconciliation process that allows Democrats to sidestep a filibuster — as their best chance to enact immigration reform.

In their arguments before the Senate parliamentarian, a former immigration attorney, Democrats made the case that providing green cards to an estimated 8 million Dreamers, farmworkers, Temporary Protected Status recipients and essential workers during the pandemic had a budgetary impact because it would make more people eligible for certain federal benefits. That, in turn, would increase the deficit by more than $130 billion, according to Democratic estimates.

But the parliamentarian stated in her ruling that providing legal status through reconciliation would also lead to “other, life-changing federal, state and societal benefits” that can’t be meaningfully reflected in the budget.

Providing permanent legal status “would give these persons freedom to work, freedom to travel, freedom to live openly in our society in any state in the nation, and to reunite with their families and it would make them eligible, in time, to apply for citizenship — things for which there is no federal fiscal equivalent.”

In addition, the parliamentarian rejected arguments from Democrats that there is a precedent for including immigration reform in reconciliation. Democrats frequently pointed to a 2005 GOP-led reconciliation bill that addressed a visa backlog.

The parliamentarian, however, noted that the 2005 bill was “the product of a bipartisan agreement” — indicating that provisions with cross-aisle support are more likely to fly under rules that don’t require such buy-in — and that the provisions “are distinguishable” from one another, with the earlier immigration proposal not tackling the question of legal status.

Congressional Republicans praised the parliamentarian’s decision Sunday. Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, tweeted that the parliamentarian “confirmed [the] obvious: mass amnesty for millions of illegal immigrants isn’t a budgetary issue appropriate for reconciliation.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) added, “Senate rules never contemplated a majority circumventing the filibuster by pretending that sweeping and transformational new policies were mere budgetary changes.”

“After decades of failing to enact their amnesty agenda, Democrats tried this latest unprecedented gambit,” McConnell said. “It was inappropriate and I’m glad it failed.”

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