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Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez Discusses Obstacles In Immigration Debate


The Senate is taking an unusual approach to immigration this week. The floor is open for debate on any idea that a senator offers up. The plan that can get 60 votes wins. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has called this an opportunity for a thousand flowers to bloom. There are lots of ideas, and one of them comes from a bipartisan group known as the Gang of Six.

Democratic Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey is part of that Gang of Six. Welcome to the program.

BOB MENENDEZ: Good to be with you.

SHAPIRO: Most congressional debates are pretty predictable. This one is expected to be anything but. So what is your strategy?

MENENDEZ: Well, our strategy is to try to internally continue to work towards 60. Our focus is on joining those - Susan Collins, obviously Jeff Flake, Lindsey Graham and others - who want to find a solution for the DREAMers. I think 49 Democrats are largely ready to support a pathway for DREAMers. So we need to join 11 Republicans. What will it take for 11 Republicans to join us in that effort? What will have to be coupled with a pathway to legalization for DREAMers in order to achieve those 11 votes?

Obviously, you know, the president had laid out four pillars which are far beyond what this debate should be about. And even as the Gang of Six, of which I'm part of, responded to those four pillars in a responsible way, which was about border security and the diversity visa lottery and the question of how much you limit family reunification, it still wasn't enough for this White House. So what we can't have is the ethno-nationalist voices in President Trump's ears being the decision-makers for Speaker Ryan and Mitch McConnell.

SHAPIRO: Sixty votes will get this out of the Senate. Then, of course, there's the House and the White House. And House Speaker Paul Ryan has said the House will not consider any proposal that does not have the president's support. Your proposal does not have the president's support. So even if it leaves the Senate, are you at a dead end?

MENENDEZ: Well, my hope would be that we would have a very robust vote - 60 already on a contentious issue these days in the Senate is a significant vote - and that that would create pressure in the House for a resolution. Now, if you're going to have the White House have a veto, then we're not going to find a pathway for DREAMers at the end of the day. And the White House says that they want a pathway for DREAMers.

SHAPIRO: But you've been down this road before in 2013. You were part of what was then called the Gang of Eight. A bill passed the Senate. It would've likely had enough votes to pass in the House if it had come up. Speaker John Boehner refused to bring it up. Isn't Paul Ryan effectively saying, you try the same approach, you're going to get the same result here?

MENENDEZ: Well, that's maybe what he's saying. But the reality is that a fair number of his own Republican caucus members have joined on to a provision that ultimately would provide a pathway for DREAMers and create border security. Now, it seems to me that he shouldn't be rejecting what a fair number of his own colleagues in his Republican caucus are willing to do.

SHAPIRO: Have you ever done an open debate in the Senate like this before?

MENENDEZ: Well, certainly when Senator Kennedy was here and we did immigration. That's when I first came to the Senate. And even in the Gang of Eight we did have amendment processes. But it's a little different. What we're starting off with is an open shell. And it's about jump ball, which means whoever gets 60 fills in that empty shell and that becomes the baseline of the bill. So...

SHAPIRO: Is that exciting? Is that scary? I mean, it's so different from how it usually works.

MENENDEZ: Well, in my experience that - I haven't really experienced that here in that way. It is scary in this respect. What I already hear our Republican colleagues wanting to offer as their first amendments has nothing to do with DREAMers. It has to do with sanctuary cities. It is about all of the pejorative aspects that they see as it relates to immigration. This debate is here on the floor because it's about DREAMers. It's about these 800,000 young people who only know America as their country and finding a pathway for them.

And so it speaks volumes that instead of putting on the first amendments that Republicans will get to offer as the majority - instead of putting their vision of how we find a pathway for DREAMers, however they may find that vision, that what they want to do is turn to the ultra-right elements of their party as it relates to their vision of what immigration should be. And so I'm hoping that that isn't the experience we'll have through this process.

SHAPIRO: Senator Menendez, thanks very much.

MENENDEZ: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Democratic New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.