Senate Parliamentarian Rules Against Path To Citizenship In Democrats' Spending Bill

The ruling is a setback for immigration reform advocates working on behalf of the country's nearly 11 million undocumented immigrants.

Democrats’ push to give young undocumented Dreamers a path to citizenship violates Senate rules, according to the Senate’s parliamentarian, who dealt yet another blow on Sunday to long-stalled immigration reform efforts in Congress.

“Changing the law to clear the way to [legal permanent resident] status is tremendous and enduring policy change that dwarfs its budgetary impact,” Elizabeth MacDonough wrote in her memo to lawmakers.

Top Senate Democrats had argued that certain immigration provisions directly affect the federal budget, and therefore could be included in the budget reconciliation process ― the legislative maneuver that will allow the party to pass President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better agenda with a simple majority.

Specifically, Democrats wanted to provide a path to citizenship for four categories of people legally in the U.S.: farmworkers, essential workers, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals beneficiaries and temporary protected status recipients. Doing so would boost economic growth, create jobs and increase wages, Democrats argued.

Democrats also cited precedent from 2005, when the Republican-controlled Senate passed a bipartisan reconciliation bill that increased the number of immigrant green cards.

“We feel very strong about that position and we hope it is persuasive,” Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), the second highest-ranking Democrat in the Senate, told reporters on Capitol Hill.

But Elizabeth MacDonough, the Senate parliamentarian, who has held the job since 2012, rejected that reasoning. Only policies that directly change federal spending or revenues can be included in the reconciliation bill, she said.

The ruling is a setback for immigration reform advocates, who viewed budget reconciliation as one of the last avenues to push reforms through and give some of the nearly 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. a path to citizenship in this Congress. Similar immigration reform proposals have stalled in Congress in recent years due to fierce GOP opposition and the Senate filibuster. That’s unlikely to change soon.

Democrats could vote to overrule MacDonough and include the immigration provisions in the reconciliation bill. Alternatively, they could replace her with another parliamentarian who agrees with them, as the Republican majority did in 2001 after a dispute over President George W. Bush’s budget and tax cut proposals.

But neither of those scenarios is seen as likely, given the party’s tenuous 50-seat majority, where any senator who disagrees can withhold their vote.

“Abiding by the ruling of the parliamentarian is central to the function of the Senate,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said at a Sept. 14 press conference, calling MacDonough the “final” word on the matter.

Earlier this year, Democrats’ push to pass a $15 minimum wage in their $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package was similarly thwarted by the Senate parliamentarian, prompting calls from some progressives for her ouster.

However, White House chief of staff Ron Klain, Biden’s top aide, quickly shot down that idea.

“We are going to honor the rules of the Senate and work within that system to get this bill passed,” Klain said in February on MSNBC.

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