Vote in Senate on 'Dreamers' hinges on bipartisan pact: McConnell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Wednesday said he would bring a “Dreamers” immigration bill to the Senate floor if bipartisan negotiations between senators and the Trump administration produce an agreement by the end of January.

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McConnell also said in a statement that he would offer the measure as a “free-standing vote,” without specifying when it would occur.

Many supporters of the immigration initiative have argued that it would have the best prospects for passage if it was coupled with a must-pass bill such as a spending measure early next year that potentially increases military spending.

The immigration measure would be designed to protect undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children.

Democrats in Congress have been pressing for passage well before early March, when an Obama-era program is due to be completely phased out by the Trump administration.

Earlier on Wednesday, Republican U.S. Senator Jeff Flake said in a statement that McConnell had promised to bring such a bill to the full Senate next month. Flake is one of a group of seven Democratic and Republican senators negotiating a bill.

Former President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals order temporarily protected around 800,000 Dreamers from deportation. President Donald Trump announced in September he was terminating the program but had asked Congress to devise a more permanent solution by March.

A San Francisco federal judge on Wednesday wrestled with whether to order the government to keep DACA in place, while lawsuits challenging Trump’s decision unfold. At a hearing, U.S. District Judge William Alsup questioned whether he had the authority to review the decision to end DACA, but also said the administration’s justification for its move was brief and “conclusory.”

Alsup did not rule from the bench.

One of the plaintiffs, DACA recipient Dulce Garcia, attended the hearing and said she was in the sixth day of a hunger strike intended to urge lawmakers to make protection of DACA recipients a condition for passage of any more federal spending bills.

Democratic Senator Dick Durbin said in a statement, “Bipartisan negotiations continue and we’re fighting to pass this measure soon.” He did not provide details on any progress being made in the talks.

A bipartisan group of senators led by Durbin and Republican Lindsey Graham have been holding private negotiations over how many Dreamers would be covered by legislation giving them temporary legal status and whether they would ultimately be allowed to apply for U.S. citizenship.

The negotiations have been complicated by Republican demands that increased border security be included in any legislation.

Republicans also have been clamoring for more immigration enforcement throughout the United States. Democrats have been opposed to that as part of a Dreamer measure, saying it is a way for the Trump administration to step up its deportations of undocumented relatives of Dreamers, thus breaking up families currently in the United States.

Reporting by Richard Cowan in Washington and Daniel Levine in San Francisco; Editing by David Gregorio and Tom Brown