U.S. President Donald Trump, flanked by U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), Representative Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), holds a bipartisan meeting with legislators on immigration reform at the White House, Tuesday.
By KEN THOMAS and ALAN FRAM
WASHINGTON (AP) Seeking a bipartisan compromise to avoid a government shutdown, President Donald Trump suggested Tuesday that an immigration deal could be reached in two phases — first by addressing young immigrants and border security with what he called a “bill of love,” then by making comprehensive changes that have long eluded Congress.
Trump presided over a lengthy meeting with Republican and Democratic lawmakers seeking a solution for hundreds of thousands of young people who were brought to the U.S. as children and living here illegally. Trump last year ended the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which shielded more than 700,000 people from deportation and gave them the right to work legally. He gave Congress until March to find a fix.
The president, congressional Republicans and Democrats expressed optimism for a deal just 10 days before a government shutdown deadline.
Trump said he was willing to be flexible in finding an agreement as Democrats warned that the lives of hundreds of thousands of immigrants hung in the balance. “I think my positions are going to be what the people in this room come up with,” Trump said during a Cabinet Room meeting with a bipartisan group of nearly two dozen lawmakers, adding, “I am very much reliant upon the people in this room.”
A group of journalists observed the meandering meeting for an extraordinary length of time — about 55 minutes — that involved Trump seeking input from Democrats and Republicans alike in a freewheeling exchange on the contentious issue.
The White House said after the meeting that lawmakers had agreed to narrow the scope of the negotiations to four areas: border security, family-based “chain migration,” the visa lottery, and the DACA policy, winning nods from Democrats.
“It’s encouraging that the president seems open to a narrow deal protecting the Dreamers,” said Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York.
The unusually public meeting laid bare a back-and-forth between parties more typically confined to closed-door negotiations. At one point, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, asked Trump if he would support a “clean” DACA bill now with a commitment to pursue a comprehensive immigration overhaul later.
Trump responded, “I would like it … I think a lot of people would like to see that but I think we have to do DACA first.” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., interjected, saying, “Mr. President, you need to be clear though,” that legislation involving the socalled Dreamers would need to include border security.
Trump also suggested bringing back “earmarks,” or money for pet projects requested by lawmakers, as a way to bridge the divide between the two parties. Conservative groups responded that any resumption of earmarks ran the risk of special interests playing a bigger role in government, a notion at odds with Trump’s “drain the swamp” campaign mantra.
On immigration, the president said he would insist on construction of a border security wall as part of an agreement involving young immigrants, but he said Congress could then pursue a comprehensive immigration overhaul in a second phase of talks.
House Republicans said they planned to soon introduce legislation to address border security and the young immigrants. Trump said, “it should be a bill of love.”
Conservatives quickly sounded alarms about a process that would lead to a comprehensive agreement on immigration, a path that has long been anathema to many rank-and-file Republicans.
“Nothing Michael Wolff could say about @realDonaldTrump has hurt him as much as the
DACA lovefest right now,” tweeted conservative commentator Ann Coulter, referencing Trump’s recent portrayal in the book, “Fire and Fury.”
Rep. Mark Meadows, RN.C., leader of the hardright House Freedom Caucus, said in a text message after the White House meeting he was “generally” opposed to a two-step process “because history would indicate the second step never happens.”
But he later said that if the first steps included the four areas outlined by the White House, “then I could support a two-step process realizing that step one is the only thing that is guaranteed.”
The president appeared to acknowledge the potential political pitfalls of pursuing a more permanent deal, telling the lawmakers, “I’ll take all the heat you want. But you are not that far away from comprehensive immigration reform.”
After the meeting, lawmakers from both parties appeared divided over the basic definition of Trump’s bottom-line demand for a border wall on the southern border.
Democratic House Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland said his party was opposed to GOP calls for $18 billion in funding to build the wall. “It was clear in the meeting that wall did not mean some structure,” he said of Trump’s remarks, noting the president also mentioned fencing, cameras, and other security measures for the border.
Republicans were adamant that Trump’s call “means the wall,” but that Trump acknowledged it does not need to cover the entire length of the border, because of geographic barriers. Just how many miles of a constructed wall the president would need to sign onto an immigration bill would be subject to negotiation, McCarthy said.
Democrats and Republicans are set to resume negotiations on Wednesday.