McConnell Plays Down Chances of New Senate Vote on Immigration

WASHINGTON—Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell threw cold water on the idea of holding a fresh Senate vote on immigration legislation if the House passes a measure, saying he had no desire to spend time on bills that are bound to fail.

“We have to make law—not just spin our wheels,” the Kentucky Republican said in an interview.

The comments come as the immigration fight is intensifying in the House, where centrist Republicans are attempting to a force a vote on a series of immigration measures.

The effort has divided GOP ranks, with conservatives suspicious that it could result in passage of a bill that many Republicans don’t support. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) has also opposed the centrists’ effort, as it undermines his ability to set the legislative agenda.

Earlier this year, Mr. McConnell allowed votes on four different immigration plans, including ones that would have created a pathway to citizenship for young immigrants brought to the country illegally as minors, known as Dreamers. Those measures, which included one based on a proposal put forward by President Donald Trump, were all defeated, amid a lack of agreement on issues such as Dreamers’ fate, funding for a border wall and family-based migration.

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House Speaker Paul Ryan’s tussles with some Republican lawmakers on immigration underscore how the party has struggled to define their consensus position on the issue. Gerald F. Seib discusses their different stances on Dreamers, stricter immigration policies and the Mexico border wall. Photo: Getty Images

“Honestly, I’ve spent a week on this, as you recall, in February,” Mr. McConnell said. “I couldn’t find a consensus in the Senate.”

Mr. McConnell left the door open to reconsidering an immigration measure, but only if Mr. Trump indicated he supported it.

“If the House passed a bill that the president was for—in other words I thought there was a chance of actually making a law—I’d consider it,” Mr. McConnell said.

Mr. Trump has said legal protections for Dreamers must be paired with tighter border security, including funding for a wall and other steps to tighten immigration rules.

Mr. McConnell has long guarded his prerogatives as Senate majority leader, and his willingness to open up the Senate to a freewheeling immigration debate earlier this year was something of an aberration, one that grew out of the horse-trading that enabled passage of a sweeping, $1.5 trillion tax cut.

Several times in the Journal interview, Mr. McConnell came back to the idea that the immigration fight had taken up valuable floor time without yielding a result, and he suggested he was unwilling to repeat such an experience.

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Lawmakers have been fighting over immigration since September, when Mr. Trump ended an Obama-era program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. DACA protects Dreamers from deportation and allows them to temporarily work legally in the U.S. Mr. Trump set a deadline of March but federal courts have kept the program in place.

Twin pressures face Mr. McConnell as he heads into the second half of 2018: the need to complete must-pass legislation and the push to maintain control of the Senate, which Republicans hold by a narrow 51-49 majority.

On the legislative front, Mr. McConnell cited the farm bill and legislation to authorize defense spending and set defense policy as must-pass agenda items.

He said that the farm bill was especially important, given that Republicans have strength in rural areas and small towns.

“We need to be able to produce a farm bill—I think it’s important for this Republican Senate not to leave a farm bill on the sidelines,” Mr. McConnell said. “For us not to produce a farm bill I think would be a negative.”

The farm bill collapsed last week in the House after opposition from a group of conservatives, who were demanding a separate vote soon on a measure to toughen immigration enforcement.

Turning to the midterms, Mr. McConnell said he continues to think that the elections will be difficult for Republicans and listed Arizona, Nevada and Tennessee as three states where Republican-held Senate seats are at risk.

“In Tennessee, they’ve got a very credible candidate,” Mr. McConnell said, referring to Democrat Phil Bredesen, a former governor there.

But he also identified six states—Montana, North Dakota, Missouri, Indiana, West Virginia, and Florida—as “legitimate pickup opportunities” for Republicans, and said he was eyeing two more, Ohio and Pennsylvania, as seats that could “get on the radar.”

In all, Democrats are defending 26 Senate seats, while Republicans are defending nine.

Mr. McConnell also brushed off suggestions that the third-party candidacy by coal magnate Don Blankenship in West Virginia poses a threat to GOP efforts to win the seat, currently held by Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin. Messrs. McConnell and Blankenship feuded publicly during the state’s GOP primary, won by Patrick Morrisey, the West Virginia attorney general.

“It’s a long time from now and November and I think we have a credible electoral candidate,” Mr. McConnell said of Mr. Morrisey. “We certainly intend to compete in West Virginia.”

Write to Siobhan Hughes at siobhan.hughes@wsj.com and Kristina Peterson at kristina.peterson@wsj.com

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