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Senators Begin Open Debate On Immigration


This week brought a rare move from Congress. The Senate began an open debate on immigration. Basically, the idea is that lawmakers could vote on immigration proposals and amendments from every part of the political spectrum. Some hope that this would eventually lead to a bipartisan immigration deal, but there hasn't been a whole lot of visible progress on that front. To talk about what might be happening behind the scenes, I am joined now in our studio by Senator Doug Jones. He is a Democrat from Alabama and a member of the so-called Common Sense Coalition, a group of moderate lawmakers from both sides of the aisle.

Senator, thanks so much for coming in.

DOUG JONES: Good morning, Rachel. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So this is quite unusual as we just established, this whole open debate process. First off, could you just describe it? What has it been like?

JONES: Well, it's been great so far. I mean, we're just now getting into the process, though. I think today you're going to see amendments actually offered and debated. There will be a series of debates offered by Republicans and Democrats, alternating, that will eventually, hopefully - and I think the goal is to, at some point toward the end of this process this week - have one bill that has been kind of the coalition's - Common Sense Coalition-backed bill that will get to the Senate that will get 60 votes and will pass and then be sent to the House and to the president.

MARTIN: So you said at the end of this week. So that's today. Like, Mitch McConnell gave...

JONES: Well...

MARTIN: ...This open debate promise one week. And that's over today.

JONES: Well, no - I don't think we're necessarily going to go - get over on Wednesday. I think we'll go into tomorrow and possibly into Friday. We've got to let this play out a little bit. I do not expect this process to end today.

MARTIN: So where do you see the 60 votes happening? There is a plan on the table that's close to what the White House wants on immigration. There's the House bill, as you noted, another proposal from Senators Coons and McCain. Where do you see the 60 votes?

JONES: Well, I think there's - there's been a lot of discussions going on over the last 30 days since the government shutdown. Susan Collins and Joe Manchin have kind of led the Common Sense Coalition. We have been meeting on a regular basis to try to talk about what is acceptable, what's not acceptable, where our respective caucuses can come down. I think you're going to see - hopefully, what's going to come out of this is a consensus on - certainly on DACA, border security. After that, it gets a little stickier. And we're going to see where things go. I think the final details of those bills are yet to be finalized. We're going to be working up until the last minute.

MARTIN: That means - you say there's more consensus on border security and DACA. That means that the issue of family-based migration, or so-called chain migration, and the visa diversity lottery system - those are still the sticking points?

JONES: I think that those are still on the table, and they're still up for discussion. Where those end up in the next 24, 48 hours remains to be seen. But they're still up for discussion. Everything is still on the table, up for discussion. We see movement from the White House. We see movement from the Republican caucus. We see movement from the Democratic caucus. I mean, this process is working, quite frankly, the way it should be working - behind the scenes, not out in public.

MARTIN: So what can you tell us about where the movement is? Because we've heard this from several people that - oh, amendments are happening; changes are happening. But can you give us one specific that is changing? I mean, if you just take the White House plan and if you take the issue of the visa diversity lottery system - they want that gone. Is that something you support?

JONES: I won't say that I support it being gone. But there are talks of changing the system somewhat to more of a merit-based system. Those details aren't being worked out. The important thing, I think, to remember is those changes can't be done in an open forum and a public thing like this. And I think it's better to let this play out and let people talk and see where things are. We've got - the two biggest pillars are DACA and the DREAMers as well as border security. I think we have moved very far. I think both sides have moved toward the middle in accepting some compromises. And if we can stay focused on those, the others, I believe - this is just a personal opinion of mine - will fall into place.

MARTIN: Democrats are spending a lot of political capital on immigration. Do you think other issues like health care and efforts to overhaul entitlements by the Republicans more broadly - are those getting short shrift in this...

JONES: No, I don't think so. If you go back and you look at what the Senate did, anyway, with the budget resolutions that were passed last week, I think Senate Democrats really not only held their own, I think those issues of, you know, community health centers, maintaining Medicaid and Medicare - those kind of things really stayed in force.

So I think immigration is separate. That's what's significant about this debate. We're carving out a very contentious area for open debate on the Senate floor. That hasn't been done in a long, long time in the United States Senate. And I think people can see a deliberative process that people want from their United States Senate. So I think we can get back to some of those issues, and we can have more of a debate. We've got a budget issue I think is going to take us for two years that will help us focus on issues and zero in on those issues in a deliberative way.

MARTIN: Alabama Senator Doug Jones in our studios in Washington this morning.

Thank you so much for your time.

JONES: My pleasure, Rachel. Anytime. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.