Rep. Jesus ‘Chuy’ Garcia’s uphill House battle for immigration plans in Biden’s Build Back Better bill

Garcia, an Illinois Democrat, and two colleagues are threatening to doom Biden’s social spending bill if it does not contain immigration provisions.

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Lynn Sweet/Sun-Times

WASHINGTON— It’s Thursday morning and Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, D-Ill., per instructions from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, is on the hunt for crucial votes from Democratic House moderates for immigration provisions in President Joe Biden’s sweeping $1.75 trillion budget bill.

We’re talking about the difficult immigration negotiations in his House office with only hours potentially left to make a deal because Pelosi has been pushing for a Thursday vote.

Garcia, a progressive, is lobbying his colleagues to include a pathway to citizenship in the plan, a long shot in the House in part because some moderates in swing districts don’t want to risk voting yes on something controversial if it is doomed from the start in the Senate.

A Oaxacan rug is behind the desk of the Mexican-American lawmaker who has made immigration reform his signature issue.

Garcia’s laptop sits on a cardboard box on his desk to keep him eye-level for virtual conference calls, with a little statue of Cesar Chavez, the civil rights activist, standing behind the open cover.

Later in the day, I check in with Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the nation’s leading immigration advocate who has worked the longest and hardest of any senator on immigration issues.

We talk about how he is continuing to map strategy to persuade the Senate parliamentarian to accept some immigration language in the Biden social spending “Build Back Better” measure, often referred to as the reconciliation bill.

Two earlier attempts didn’t pass muster with the parliamentarian.Durbin is working on the third try.

On a wall behind Durbin’s desk in his ornate Capitol office – he has a suite because he is the Number Two Senate leader – is a portrait of President Abraham Lincoln.

The Senate is divided 50-50, with Democrats in control because Vice President Kamala Harris has the tie-breaking vote.

It usually takes 60 votes to pass a Senate bill.

No Senate Republican will vote for Biden’s $1.75 billion bill — with funding for improved health care coverage, child care and to combat climate change, among many other things.

That’s why the Democrats want to invoke a Senate rule dealing with updating budgets allowing Build Back Better to pass with only 51 votes.

The parliamentarian has to rule that everything in Build Back Better relates to the budget. And so far she hasn’t.

The other factor that has been playing out is whether the Senate Democrats can even get to 50, given the ongoing objections from Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kirsten Sinema from Arizona.

GARCIA’S POWER PLAY

Democrats control the House by only four votes. It was three until Thursday, when a new Ohio Democrat was sworn-in. That means that as of Wednesday, any three House members had the power to block Biden’s bill.

And that is the threat made by Garcia and two colleagues, Reps. Lou Correa of California and Adriano Espaillat of New York.

They wield enormous power, for now, because they are not promising to vote for Biden’s Build Back Better signature measure.

For that matter, at this point, any three or four House members hold great power, and some moderates are sticking together with their demands, not necessarily related to immigration.

Garcia and his two colleagues met with Pelosi on Wednesday to go over two provisions they want in the Biden bill with legalist names: parole and registry.

Parole: The “parole” option would allow eligible undocumented immigrants, after undergoing background checks, to remain in the U.S. with work permits, other benefits, the ability to travel outside the U.S. and return, and most important, be able to live without fear of being deported.

However, there is not a path to citizenship in the parole option.

Registry: The “registry” section of current immigration law would be revised to allow undocumented immigrants who qualify — and who have been in the U.S. for more than 11 years — to apply to become permanent residents.

This option includes a path to citizenship.

“As we speak, we’re counting the votes, especially among the more conservative members of the caucus to see if there’s any chance that we can include registry along with the parole piece,” Garcia said.

Garcia said Pelosi told the three to “look for the votes, and if we could identify the vote to pass it out of the House, that she would be open. So she did not rule it out. But you know, she did caution that it would not be easy, because of our three-vote margin.”

Pelosi “pulled out lists of people” they needed to call to get an “appeal from those who feel so passionate about immigration.”

When we talked in the morning, Garcia said, “I already called five people and of them, all of them were open with a couple of questions about,” – and then he said after a sigh, “will this pass the parliamentarian muster?”

There is no way to know that, I said.

Said Garcia, “It’s tough. Yeah, it’s tough.”

Garcia agrees that Biden’s Build Back Better bill has many items in it he supports. He will have to decide if he will, in the end, block the entire measure over immigration.

At 7:32 p.m., I see Garcia as he enters Pelosi’s office. Two hours later, after Pelosi met with Garcia, Correa and Espaillat, there is no deal. Said Garcia in a tweet, “all options remain on the table.” Negotiations were continuing into the night.

Overruling the parliamentarian is not realistic, said Sen. Dick Durbin as he continues to explore options. “There are those who believe there is a process to overrule the parliamentarian. I don’t have any evidence” it can be done.

Overruling the parliamentarian is not realistic, said Sen. Dick Durbin as he continues to explore options. “There are those who believe there is a process to overrule the parliamentarian. I don’t have any evidence” it can be done.

Lynn Sweet/Sun-Times

DURBIN: IMMIGRATION “NOT IMPOSSIBLE..VERY DIFFICULT”

Durbin told me he is in frequent contact with Pelosi and Garcia.

“I know where her heart is on this,” Durbin said. “But she is looking at me and saying, ‘I need a majority vote. I need 218,”’ the minimum number of votes required to pass a House bill.

As for getting the Parliamentarian to approve the registry option, Durbin said it will be an uphill climb because she has already informally rejected it.

Overruling the parliamentarian is not realistic, said Durbin as he continues to explore options. “There are those who believe there is a process to overrule the parliamentarian. I don’t have any evidence” it can be done.

Durbin, committed to finding a path to citizenship, said the reality is “certain things I support have already been stopped by the parliamentarian in the Senate.”

Durbin’s bottom line on getting some immigration provisions in the Biden bill: “Not impossible, but very, very difficult.”

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