Congressional negotiators and the White House are publicly touting progress toward a deal to shield hundreds of thousands of young immigrants from deportation. But behind the scenes, Democrats and Republicans appear to be struggling more than ever on a plan that can earn President Donald Trump’s signature and bipartisan backing from Capitol Hill.
The White House has not provided details to a bipartisan group of key senators on what border security and immigration restrictions they want in return for helping Dreamers, according to the negotiators, who believe that’s a major obstacle.
And in one potentially ominous sign for a deal, two Senate Republicans who had been in talks with Democrats released an unusually downcast statement about the lack of progress in the private negotiations, which began after Trump announced last fall he would kill the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
“Over the course of the last several weeks, we have negotiated in good faith with Senate Democrats on a DACA agreement,” said GOP Sens. James Lankford of Oklahoma and Thom Tillis of North Carolina in the joint statement. “Unfortunately, our discussions on border security and enforcement with Democrats are much further apart, and that is key to getting a bipartisan deal on DACA. Until that happens, we cannot accomplish the solutions our country needs and many families deserve.”
Meanwhile, a small circle of House Republicans has gone rogue, preparing a conservative bill meant to strengthen Trump’s negotiating hand against Democrats, but which would have slim prospects in the Senate.
The posturing is the latest sign that even as both sides say they are eager for a deal, the thorny politics of immigration may be too difficult to overcome — with potentially major consequences for both parties, not to mention those who wonder whether they will still be able to work and live in the United States legally for much longer. Most of the DACA terminations will begin in March, although some permits have already expired.
Even before their statement Thursday, Tillis and Lankford had quietly stopped attending the meetings recently, according to multiple sources, shrinking the group to five primary senators: Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), and Colorado Sens. Michael Bennet, a Democrat, and Republican Cory Gardner. One Democratic aide insisted that “Lankford and Tillis were dragging their feet and did not share the urgency we had.” But another person familiar with the situation said the two Republicans weren't invited, including to the most recent meeting Wednesday night in Durbin's office.
The Senate negotiators had been moving toward an agreement on legalization provisions for the Dreamers, those familiar with the discussions said. Graham has indicated that the language would fall between the Dream Act, which he authored with Durbin, and a more conservative proposal written by Tillis and Lankford — although those legalization provisions had yet to get approval from GOP leadership or a separate, GOP-only working group, according to a Republican aide.
But it’s on border security where senators have struggled, particularly without updated guidance from the White House on what the administration wants. The White House has not offered a list of its border security wishes, despite a pledge from White House chief of staff John Kelly to do so last month.
“Good faith negotiating is about being willing to compromise and accept the reality you’re probably going to piss off a chunk of your base in order to reach a fair, reasonable consensus,” argued a separate GOP aide. “Republicans have been doing that, Democrats have not.”
While the Senate has struggled with a bipartisan immigration solution, the House is readying a push to ditch Democrats altogether, moving further to the right.
GOP Reps. Raul Labrador of Idaho, Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, Martha McSally of Arizona and Michael McCaul of Texas have been working for several weeks on legislation that would extend deferred action status for Dreamers in exchange for more robust border security, including a wall; more immigration agents; changes to policies governing asylum and unaccompanied minors who show up at the border; and cutting off the ability for naturalized citizens and green card holders to sponsor relatives. That last provision is referred to as ending so-called “chain migration.”
The four House GOP lawmakers, who hope to drop their bill next week, met with Trump just days before Christmas to discuss their plan. Sources close to their effort said the president liked their ideas, and they expect the White House to support their legislation.
“It’s what the White House has been asking for,” said one GOP source familiar with the measure. “This is the only bill that’s going to unify Republicans.”
Yet the bill is already running into potential resistance from other House Republicans, particularly centrists from districts with more Latino constituents who are uncomfortable with the laundry list of enforcement demands.
In fact, the massive gap between conservative and moderate House Republicans is one reason why Speaker Paul Ryan’s DACA working group has hit its own wall in recent weeks.
Three GOP sources familiar with the ongoing meetings said the group has been unable to agree on one unified Republican bill and has skated past its own self-imposed deadlines. The group was hoping to have something to present to the conference before Thanksgiving, one Republican source said. Now New Year’s Day has come and gone and they still don’t have a proposal.
That’s one of the reasons why Labrador, Goodlatte, McSally and McCaul broke off to work on their own legislation, which is not sanctioned by Ryan nor a part of the stalled working group, according to two Republican sources. The lawmakers plan to argue their legislation is the only one that can pass their chamber with at least half of the House GOP — a sensitive matter for Ryan, who promised never to put an immigration bill on the floor without the backing of a majority of his conference.
“It’s the only approach where you’re going to get conservatives to actually vote for a bill like this,” the GOP source said.
At the same time, talks between a group of moderate House Democrats and Republicans broke down before Christmas. The group, called the Problem Solvers Caucus, had created a smaller working group that came up with a bipartisan DACA deal that included increased border security measures — a plan they hoped to unveil before the close of 2018.
But when then the smaller subset presented it to the larger group of centrists, the Democratic moderates panned the border security measures, according to one member of the group.
There are certainly some glimmers of progress. Trump will summon Republicans and Democrats to the White House next week to talk through an immigration agreement. Vice President Mike Pence dialed Flake — a close friend from their shared days in the House — to personally extend the invite to his immigration group, a spokesman for the Arizona senator said.
At a meeting with Trump and Republican senators at the White House on Thursday, discussions revolved around the wall, scaling back family-based immigration and reforms to the diversity visa lottery, according to senators who attended. Lankford said Trump and the GOP senators didn’t finalize an agreement, and Tillis said they were preparing a framework of border security and other measures they want attached to a DACA deal.
That framework will be presented to Democrats in the coming days, Tillis said. When it comes to a wall, Republicans are starting from Trump’s budget request for $1.6 billion for barriers along the southern border, which he estimated would be “probably a net increase of 600 miles of wall” over time that would be paid for by annual appropriations and potentially fees.
Trump stressed in the meeting that the diversity visa lottery, one of his frequent targets, should be terminated, according to Lankford. The Oklahoma senator said Thursday that any family-immigration reforms would need to be applied to a broader group than just DACA enrollees.
Democrats have been open to addressing issues with family-based immigration and the visa lottery.
“There’s no settlement out of it at this point,” Lankford said. “It’s still the ongoing conversation, trying to figure out where everybody is. Clearly, there needs to be another meeting.”