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Trump calls immigration debate 'last chance' for action as Senate weighs competing plans

President Trump listens during a meeting with law enforcement officials at the White House last week.

February 13, 2018 12:41 pm Updated: February 13, 2018 12:42 pm

WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump on Tuesday cast the debate on proposals to revamp the nation's immigration laws as the "last chance" for action as Senate weighed competing proposals to legalize millions of young immigrants and fulfill his goal of bolstering U.S.-Mexico border security.

Early Tuesday, Trump signaled that he is keeping close tabs on the debate to permanently replace the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that he is ending on March 5. The program has granted temporary legal protections to hundreds of thousands of "dreamers."

"Negotiations on DACA have begun. Republicans want to make a deal and Democrats say they want to make a deal," Trump tweeted. "Wouldn't it be great if we could finally, after so many years, solve the DACA puzzle. This will be our last chance, there will never be another opportunity! March 5th."

Winning support from Democrats will be key in the closely-divided Senate, and attempts to introduce a deal with broad bipartisan backing is sputtering, according to aides tracking the talks. Also unclear is whether Democrats will introduce ideas destined to fall short in a bid to put Republican senators on the record against proposals backed by a majority of Americans.

Seven GOP senators introduced a plan on Monday that fulfills Trump's calls to legalize 1.8 million dreamers, immediately authorizes spending of at least $25 billion to bolster defenses along the U.S.-Mexico border, makes changes to family-based legal migration programs and ends a diversity lottery system used by immigrants from smaller countries.

The Secure and Succeed Act "is the one bill that can become law," Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., told "CBS This Morning." But when asked if his bill has any support from Democrats, Cotton demurred.

"We won't know until we put it on the floor and have those votes," he said.

No Democrats are believed to back the plan in full - and Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., described it as "an all-Republican measure."

Many Democrats do not like how the proposal would chip away at family-based legal migration and how much money would be spent to build a wall and fencing along the southern border.

Trump repeatedly said during the 2016 campaign that Mexico would pay for the wall, but instead he is seeking billions in U.S. taxpayer dollars to build it.

On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., endorsed the plan introduced by Cotton and others and called on senators to quickly unveil whatever else they might want to propose.

In a bid to soften Trump's proposals and win over Democrats, Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., is set to unveil his own plan. Aides would not say whether Flake's proposal is endorsed by other Republicans or any Democrats.

The Preserving Immigration Levels and Legally Enhancing Readiness Act would establish a $25 billion "border trust fund" to provide up to $1.8 billion annually for border fencing and walls - but the law would require annual reports on security operations and construction plans before funding is provided.

Flake's bill also would establish a 12-year path to citizenship for eligible dreamers as Trump is seeking. In a bid to fulfill Trump's wishes, Flake's proposal would not allow dreamers to sponsor their parents for permanent residency status - only their spouse and children. And the 50,000 visas distributed annually to immigrants from smaller countries would be redistributed to families awaiting reunification and high-skilled immigrants seeking permanent residency.

Sen. Christopher A. Coons, D-Del., is also expected on Tuesday to introduce a plan co-written by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., that would grant legal status to dreamers in the country since 2013 but not immediately authorize money to build out southern border walls and fencing.

A similar version of the bill has been introduced in the House, with 54 sponsors in both parties. Based on input from GOP colleagues, Coons said he might tweak his version of the legislation to include more immediate border security funding in a bid to win more Republican support.

Formal debate on the issue began late Monday when senators voted 97 to 1 to begin the showdown. Only Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex., voted against launching the debate. A spokeswoman said he believes "it would be a serious mistake for Congress to pass legislation that grants a path to citizenship for those here illegally" - a position that puts Cruz at odds with Trump, who has endorsed legalizing 1.8 million dreamers.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., called for a modest solution focused mostly on protecting dreamers.

"This is the moment for a narrow bill, and every ounce of energy is going into finding one that can pass," Schumer said.

A week-long congressional recess begins next week, and debate on immigration is only expected to continue for this week, according to Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Tex., who helps control the floor schedule.

"At that point if the Senate hasn't worked its will, I think maybe there aren't 60 votes for anything," said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D.

Talks continued over the weekend among about two dozen other Democrats and Republicans, according to aides in both parties, signaling that they are struggling to reach a potential solution in a chamber divided between 51 Republicans and 49 members of the Democratic caucus. And both parties know that Trump could scuttle any deal with an early-morning tweet.

"Nailing down the president has been next to impossible," said Durbin, a lead Democratic broker on immigration policy.

"There's a lot at stake here," added Durbin, who has devoted much of his Senate career to seeking changes in immigration policy.

Durbin said he hasn't ruled out introducing the Dream Act - a 17-year old proposal that would grant blanket legal protection to millions of dreamers - far more than the number Trump supports. The concept is backed by 9 in 10 Americans, according to recent polls, but Republicans are likely to oppose the plan if it isn't coupled with changes in border security funding or other tweaks to immigration policy.

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The Washington Post's Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.