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Democrats Are Trying To Use $3.5 Trillion Spending Bill To Pass Immigration Reform

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Congressional Democrats are pinning their chances for immigration reform on an ambitious $3.5 trillion spending bill. They unveiled plans today to include permanent residency for qualified immigrants in the bill through a process called budget reconciliation. First, they'll need to get past a major hurdle in the upper chamber - the Senate parliamentarian. NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales explains.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Immigration reform advocates are brimming with optimism that this is their year.

FRANK SHARRY: We think that this year is our best chance in decades.

GRISALES: That's Frank Sharry, who heads up immigration advocacy group America's Voice. Sharry and others are taking their cues from top Democrats who see the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill as the vehicle to get it done.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I think we should include in the reconciliation bill the immigration proposal.

NANCY PELOSI: I do believe that immigration should be in the reconciliation.

DICK DURBIN: The only viable option at this time for passing a path to citizenship is through reconciliation.

GRISALES: That's President Joe Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin. But Democrats first need to convince the Senate parliamentarian that legislation to create new pathways to citizenship for millions will have an impact on the budget. That's because provisions in the budget reconciliation bill must directly raise revenues or the deficit. Democrats must also hope Republicans stay out of the way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LINDSEY GRAHAM: But you wouldn't do it through reconciliation because no Republicans are going to vote for a $3.5 trillion socialist document.

GRISALES: That's South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham. The Senate parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough would decide based on arguments from both sides. For now, MacDonough is not sharing her thinking. But her predecessor, Alan Frumin, says the odds may be in the GOP's favor.

ALAN FRUMIN: On its face, that appears to me to be problematic.

GRISALES: Many Democrats say a precedent was set in 2005 under Frumin's watch as Senate parliamentarian. That year, a reconciliation bill that included provisions for immigrant visas was passed by a Republican-led Senate with bipartisan support. But Frumin says the chamber did not test whether the immigration reform language could be allowed.

FRUMIN: It's an issue that has not been litigated, was not litigated in 2005 and would have to be litigated as a new question.

GRISALES: Frumin says it appears immigration only has an indirect budgetary effect.

FRUMIN: But if the only thing people have to say was, it was good in 2005, therefore it's good now, I would say that's not enough.

GRISALES: The debate has put Democrats in a tricky position. Some, such as Illinois Congressman Chuy Garcia, have gone as far as to say they won't support reconciliation without immigration reform.

CHUY GARCIA: This is the moment that we haven't seen in 35 years.

GRISALES: But if the parliamentarian rules against Democrats, Garcia is not saying he will back out of reconciliation altogether.

GARCIA: If the parliamentarian rules against including immigration in this spending package, we must look ahead. We must use any opportunity available to provide a pathway to citizenship for all.

GRISALES: Democrats will have to go back to the drawing board if the effort fails. But reform advocates warn the ultimate test on their progress will be delivered at ballot boxes next year.

Claudia Grisales, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLESTHEFIRST'S "THE DESCENT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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