Congressional Republicans got the green light from President Donald Trump to negotiate an immigration deal with Democrats, potentially clearing a stalemate that’s stalled action on multiple issues, including funding to keep the government from shutting down next week.
During an unusual public meeting with bipartisan members of Congress at the White House on Tuesday, Trump offered a broad outline for an agreement while also giving cover for any Republicans worried about the political cost of giving in on protection for some undocumented immigrants.
For Democrats, Trump injected a sense of urgency into what had been plodding negotiations.
“There’s a path forward. There’s a deal on the table,” Senator John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 Republican leader, said after the meeting. No one will get a “perfect deal,” the senator said, “everybody wants, eventually, to get to yes.”
Despite Trump’s record as an unpredictable negotiating partner, members of both parties expressed optimism. An immigration agreement could open the way to a broad spending bill, which in turn could carry disaster relief funds, legislation stabilizing Obamacare and other measures that stalled in December. Democrats have been insisting that any immigration compromise be part of a spending deal, which is needed to keep the government open after January 19.
Trump outlined his stance as he led an extraordinary 55-minute discussion with lawmakers of both parties that was supposed to be behind closed doors but ended up being conducted in front of reporters. Their meeting took place days after the publication of a controversial book that’s raised questions about his fitness for office.
Trump indicated he’s willing to split the contentious immigration issue in two. The first would be legislation to replace an Obama-era program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, tighten border security and begin building a wall, limit family preferences for immigration and end or restricts a diversity visa lottery system. An attempt at a more comprehensive revamping of the nation’s immigration laws to resolved the status of 11 million people living in the US illegally – something that has eluded lawmakers for years – would be deferred until later.
While the president’s general terms for acquiescing to Democratic demands on DACA haven’t changed, Trump suggested he wasn’t sweating the details.
“What I approve is going to be very much reliant on what the people in this room come to me with,” Trump said, sitting at a table in the Cabinet Room with almost two dozen lawmakers of both parties from the House and Senate.
Room to Negotiate
For Democrats, that left enough room for negotiation. “I was encouraged by what the president said,” Senate Democratic leader Charles Schumer of New York, who was not in the meeting, said afterward, adding that the “devil is in the details.”
Among those details are how extensive a border wall might be included, and how much to restrict family preferences for immigration.
Schumer said he was confident Republicans and Democrats could agree on bolstering border security. But he stuck to his stance that a immigration bill must be combined with the spending measure needed to avoid a government shutdown.
Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Senate Democrat who was in the meeting with Trump, said, “Everyone shared a sense of urgency, that we have to do something and do it quickly.”
Tie to Spending
Thune and other Republicans express skepticism that a measure on DACA, the border wall and other provisions could be finished in time to be included in a stopgap spending measure needed to keep the government operating after January 19. A short-term extension likely will be needed to work out an agreement on a budget for the rest of the fiscal year.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said he wants any immigration deal to move separately from the spending measure.
“I think the main thing is they want certainty,” Thune said of the Democrats.
GOP Senator Lindsey Graham said Trump’s backing for a near-term deal resolving the plight of the 800,000 young undocumented immigrants is key.
Left out of the discussion for now would be broader immigration measures, such as revamping the visa system to make it purely merit-based, creating a mechanism to make it harder for undocumented immigrants to get jobs and resolving the status of the millions now living in the US illegally. The last major immigration proposal cleared the Senate in 2013, but was never considered by the House, where Republicans were attacked if they supported “amnesty” for the undocumented. Trump, Graham said, can provide the political cover for action other immigration issues this year.
“President Trump has the loudest voice I’ve seen” on immigration, Graham of South Carolina told reporters. “I think people from the right are going to listen to him.”
Trump said that was his purpose. “If you want to take it that further step, I’ll take the heat, I don’t care,” he said.
Representative Carlos Curbelo, a Florida Republican who has advocated for the young immigrants, called Trump’s move potentially decisive. “It’s not my style, but a lot of members here want to take cues from the White House,” he said.
The negotiations until now have been made more difficult by Trump’s shifting and sometimes contradictory statements about his goals for the immigration legislation. After promising early in his term to deal compassionately with undocumented immigrants brought to the US as children, the president recently has emphasised tougher measures that appeal to his base: building a wall on the border with Mexico, ending the visa lottery system and restricting family-based immigration policies.
Central to the standoff is Trump’s decision to end former President Barack Obama’s DACA policy by March 5. Democrats are demanding to tie a DACA fix to a spending deal that would include new budget caps with equal increases for domestic and defense programs, funds for recovery from hurricanes and wildfires and Obamacare stabilisation measures. Republicans want a bigger boost for defense spending.
With Republicans holding just 51 out of 100 Senate seats, at least nine Democratic votes are needed to push a deal through that chamber, and many Republicans say Schumer has tremendous leverage.
“Senator Schumer basically has a veto card” on government spending and immigration, said Representative Chris Collins, a New York Republican and close Trump ally.
House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin said Tuesday that Republicans want a solution for the young immigrants and that he’s optimistic about prospects for the spending package. “We’re hopeful and confident these bipartisan talks will bear fruit,” Ryan told reporters.
Durbin and Graham are among seven senators have been meeting for weeks without success to find a bipartisan immigration compromise.
The White House meeting included Republican House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte of Virginia and Senator Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican. Also attending were top Senate Judiciary Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California and Democratic Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey – both among the Senate’s strongest advocates for the young immigrants.