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Senate parliamentarian rejects immigration reform in Democrats' spending bill

The decision is a major setback for Democrats who have been trying to advance immigration reform.
J. Scott Applewhite
The decision is a major setback for Democrats who have been trying to advance immigration reform.

Updated December 16, 2021 at 7:52 PM ET

Senate parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough has ruled against Democrats' pitch to include immigration reform provisions in their almost $2 trillion social spending bill, in a major setback for the party in their third attempt at the effort.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said he was "disappointed" with the ruling and that Democrats are "considering what options remain."

The reform provision sought to include work permits for immigrants who have been in the U.S. since before 2011 and make available unused family-based or employment-based visas, as well as reduce immigration backlogs, among other efforts.

Democrats and Republicans made formal arguments before MacDonough earlier this month on Dec. 1, two congressional sources told NPR. Democrats argued that the work permits and other provisions would have a budgetary impact, a requirement under Senate rules for inclusion in the reconciliation process.

Democrats vowed to "pursue every means to achieve a path to citizenship" in the bill in a joint statement released after the ruling from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., Durbin and a number of Latino Democrats, including Sens. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico and Alex Padilla of California.

"Throughout the entire reconciliation process, we have worked to ensure that immigration reform was not treated as an afterthought. The majority of Americans support our efforts to provide legal status for millions of undocumented immigrants in the United States because it would raise wages, create good-paying jobs, enrich our economy, and improve the lives of all Americans," the statement said.

Democrats are using reconciliation to pass budgetary legislation with a simple majority, sidestepping a legislative filibuster by the GOP in the 50-50 Senate. Republicans have been steadfast in their opposition to the move.

Many immigration advocate groups had pinned their hopes on the budgetary legislation as their best shot in years to pass immigration reform.

In September, MacDonough ruled against Democrats in two previous efforts to include immigration reform plans in the social and climate spending package, which they call the Build Back Better plan.

In the first attempt, also known as "Plan A," Democrats proposed a pathway to citizenship for 8 million immigrants, but MacDonough's rejection appeared to close the door to this option through the spending bill process. A few weeks later, a second proposal, or "Plan B," tried to give millions legal residency through a so-called registry provision, but it was also rejected.

Although MacDonough's predecessor had warned the rejections could be the outcome in those first two cases, Schumer and other Democrats expressed deep disappointment and vowed to propose alternative proposals.

The third proposal became part of the social spending bill passed by the House last month, which led to senators to make their pitch on Wednesday. Some pro-immigration members had argued that the plan did not go far enough, but advocates countered it presented their best, last chance of getting past the parliamentarian.

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Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.