WASHINGTON — The Senate office of Republican Susan Collins of Maine has emerged in recent weeks as an oasis of bipartisanship, a political Switzerland where a band of Democrats and Republicans have a safe space to scrawl points of agreement on a whiteboard and celebrate their common ground.
Now this “Common Sense Coalition” — 25 or so senators who were instrumental in reopening the government after a three-day shutdown last month — is trying to forge an immigration compromise. It is proving to be the toughest challenge yet in their bid to restore an increasingly rancorous Senate to its exalted platform as the world’s greatest deliberative body.
Optimism reigns among this group, despite big warning signs.
A jubilant Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, dubbed Collins’s office Switzerland and said it’s a place where everyone can “feel good.” Senator Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat who introduced a new immigration plan with Republican John McCain of Arizona this week, told reporters recently the group could “make a lasting difference in how the Senate of the United States works.”
But the coalition is realizing that ending a politically unattractive budget shutdown was a lot easier than agreeing on a sweeping immigration compromise that carries risks for both sides — something that for decades has eluded far more experienced negotiating groups working with more amenable presidents.
And two weeks and at least six Common Sense summits later, the meetings have not altered the reality that members of both parties face increasing pressure from their most ardent supporters to oppose compromises, as well as a mercurial president who may not endorse their plan.
The group is meeting nearly every day this week, scrambling to reach an agreement ahead of a vote on a potentially doomed conservative immigration bill that Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, could begin as early as Monday.
“Everything’s on the table, that’s what’s great about it,” said Senator Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia and a cofounder of the coalition, as he walked into Monday night’s meeting.
That’s part of the problem. The moderate coalition has spent hours scribbling down what members all agree to on Collins’s whiteboard, but they are still divided on a fundamental question of strategy.
Some senators want the group to back a bill the White House has asked for, including steep cuts in legal immigration that most Democrats and many Republicans find unacceptable. Others believe the moderates should buck the president and endorse a bill they think can get the most votes in the Senate.
“Some in the meeting say, ‘But yeah, if we do that, the House will never agree; if we do that, the president will never agree,’ ” Democratic Senator Tim Kaine explained to a few immigration activists after Tuesday’s meeting. “Well yeah, but we’re the Senate. Our job isn’t to play ‘Mother May I.’ ”
Most senators in the group agree with providing up to 1.8 million DACA recipients and other young immigrants a path to citizenship, in exchange for billions of dollars for a partial border wall (or fence) and other border security measures. But some in the coalition believe the group needs to limit DACA recipients’ ability to sponsor their parents for citizenship, and adopt other immigration restrictions, to have a shot at winning the president’s favor.
If President Trump rejects the Senate’s bill, it would likely die in the more conservative House, continuing the stalemate and again leaving the fate of DACA recipients up in the air.
After the Common Sense meeting Tuesday, Coons said the issues were complex and that the group probably won’t know what the Senate will support until senators start voting on amendments on the floor.
He acknowledged that the “loudest voices” in each party tend to dominate, making compromise harder.
“It is at least positive that we keep getting the full complement of members showing up interested, passing out papers, pointing out ideas,” Coons said of the bipartisan group.
Collins, the coalition’s cofounder and a veteran of other moderate negotiating groups, said Tuesday that discussions are still “up in the air,” but she was hopeful they’d reach a deal.
“I’ve been in enough negotiations to know that sometimes things fall apart, and whether we can bring things to conclusion is still up in the air,” she said. “But I’m optimistic.”
A plan produced by immigration veterans Graham and Dick Durbin, a Democratic senator from Illinois, attempted to please the president as well as Democrats; it was roundly rejected last month by Trump, who angrily asked why the United States should accept immigrants from Africa.
“I’m glad that all these legislators are engaging it with such good intentions,” said America’s Voice director Frank Sharry, a longtime advocate for providing a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
“But you know, it’s a little bit like Michael Jordan playing baseball,” he said. “It’s hard for people who haven’t worked on this in 20 years to hit the curve ball.”
A plan that includes a large sum of money for a border wall would probably alienate Democrats from bright blue states with strong majorities of liberal voters, and a bill that doesn’t sufficiently address Trump’s demand for tighter restrictions would lose the backing of hard-right senators.
“If they’re going to load it up with border wall funding in these Common Sense Coalition [meetings] and expect liberal Democrats to vote for it, it’s not going to happen,” Sharry said.
Neither of Massachusetts’ Democratic senators is part of the Common Sense group, and both oppose any funding for a border wall.
Collins and Graham were part of an earlier group of moderates called the Gang of 14, which banded together in 2005 to stop Democratic filibusters of President George W. Bush’s judicial nominations.
Lincoln Chafee, a former Republican senator from Rhode Island who was part of the Gang of 14, said the Common Sense group’s size makes him doubtful it will wield real power.
“You just have so much power if you stick together — [Senate leadership] can’t pass anything,” Chafee said. “Once it gets big, it’s harder to hold anyone together.”
That issue is already apparent, as some senators attending the Common Sense meetings don’t even want to be associated with the group, much less promise to vote as a bloc.
“I’m working with them, but I don’t consider myself a member,” Senator Mike Rounds, a Republican from South Dakota, told the Globe.
Chafee said the group should “show some muscle” next week — by replacing McConnell’s bill with a finished immigration product endorsed by the group — and become a “beacon of sanity” on Capitol Hill.
Such a display of strength would show whether the group has a shot at having the transformative effect on the Senate that its members hoped for in January.
“I think there’s some staying power here,” Senator Maggie Hassan, a freshman Democrat from New Hampshire and a member of the group, said this week.