A bipartisan group of senators reached a deal on immigration Wednesday as President Donald Trump attempted to preemptively undercut the proposal by delivering an ultimatum: Pass my plan or risk a veto.
The self-dubbed “Common Sense Caucus” of senators late Wednesday circulated legislation that would fulfill Trump’s calls to grant legal status to 1.8 million young immigrants and would appropriate $25 billion for southern border security construction projects over the next decade – not immediately, as Trump wants. The bill also would curb family-based immigration programs, but not to the extent Trump is seeking, and would not end a diversity visa lottery program that he wants eliminated.
Word of an agreement came as formal debate on immigration policy is set to intensify Thursday. The new bipartisan plan is slated for a vote, as is the GOP proposal sought by Trump, another Republican bill that would punish “sanctuary” cities and a bipartisan idea that would significantly water down Trump’s demands.
A growing sense of diminishing urgency also set in as top leaders signaled that ongoing court challenges may give Congress more time than Trump’s deadline of March 5 to replace an Obama-era program shielding hundreds of thousands of young immigrants from deportation.
In an interview late Wednesday, a senior administration official denounced the bipartisan bill, calling it a “giant amnesty” that did nothing to secure the border, and vowed the White House would strongly lobby against it Thursday.
The official said the White House already has been in contact with individual Republican senators, as well as House leadership, asking that they oppose the bill. Plans were underway to ensure that key Cabinet members also lobby lawmakers, said the official, who said the legislation made a potential deal on “dreamers” – immigrants who have been in the country illegally since they were children – more difficult.
“We’re doing everything in our power” to block the bill, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss White House strategy.
In statement earlier in the day, Trump urged the Senate to back a proposal unveiled this week by a GOP group led by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, saying it accomplishes his vision for immigration. At the same time, the president rejected any limited approach that deals only with “dreamers” – immigrants who have been in the country illegally since they were children – and border security.
His full-throated demand was released by the White House just minutes before a group of Democrats and Republicans gathered to negotiate an agreement.
Democrats were gauging support for the plan in their caucus late Wednesday, with the realization that Trump may reject it.
“He created this problem, and he’s making it clear today he has no intention of solving it,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, a leader of the bipartisan group, was more hopeful. “I know that the president wants a result,” she said, “and my experience in the Senate is that you’re more likely to be able to get a result when you have a bipartisan plan – and that’s what we’re seeking.”
By the end of Wednesday, Collins’ group was touting its Immigration Security and Opportunity Act, which they hope could garner the 60 votes needed to pass. Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., who has emerged in recent months as an under-the-radar bipartisan broker on several subjects, is lead sponsor of the bill, while its primary co-sponsors are Collins and Sens. Angus King, I-Maine, Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Tim Kaine, D-Va. King, Manchin and Kaine are up for reelection this year.
While the bill authorizes $25 billion in border security spending, as Trump wants, it does not provide the funding all at once. Instead, the bill would dole out approximately $2.5 billion this fiscal year to begin construction of walls and fencing and new access roads, and for the redeployment or hiring of federal immigration and border security agents. Beginning in fiscal 2019, another $2.5 billion could be spent annually on border security construction or personnel as part of the normal appropriations and congressional review process.
Despite the breakthrough, there was no guarantee late Wednesday that the plan would find sufficient support.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., was noncommittal. “Each side has had to give a great deal,” he said, “but we are closer than we have ever been to passing something in the Senate to help the dreamers.”
Aides to Rounds, Collins and other GOP senators did not immediately respond to requests for comment about details of the legislation.
The bipartisan proposal is set for a vote Thursday, as is the Grassley bill. Senators are also poised to vote on a plan by Sens. Christopher Coons, D-Del., and John McCain, R-Ariz., that would grant legal status to dreamers and pay for border security construction – but not the full $25 billion Trump wants. Their plan says nothing about curbing family-based legal migration or making changes to the diversity lottery program.
Finally, senators will cast votes on a plan by Sen. Patrick Toomey, R-Pa., that would shield municipalities from any legal liability for helping detain immigration offenders but also punish local governments that refuse to help enforce federal immigration laws. A similar version of the bill failed in 2016, but it is designed to put moderate Democrats on the record as supporting or opposing attempts to punish “sanctuary.”
Trump’s latest warning might deter senators in both parties who are already anxious about debating such an emotionally contentious issue at the start of an election year. The president said in his statement that he is “asking all senators, in both parties, to support the Grassley bill and to oppose any legislation that fails to fulfill these four pillars – that includes opposing any short-term ‘Band-Aid’ approach.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., also has backed the GOP plan, and most Republicans were rallying behind the proposal. It fulfills Trump’s calls to provide legal status to 1.8 million dreamers, immediately authorizes spending at least $25 billion to bolster defenses along the U.S.-Mexico border, makes changes to family-based legal immigration programs and ends a diversity lottery system used by immigrants from smaller countries.
But Democrats in the Senate strongly oppose the Grassley plan.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who is gauging support for a House bill that is much more restrictive than Trump’s proposal, told reporters that the White House plan “should be the framework through which we come together to find a solution.”
On a conference call with reporters, senior administration officials said the president had made significant concessions to Senate Democrats. Last fall, Trump moved to end the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which had provided temporary work permits to about 690,000 dreamers. White House officials emphasized that Trump’s plan allows far more dreamers to pursue the path to citizenship.
But they added that the border security provisions and the cuts to legal immigration channels are required to stem unauthorized immigration, reduce a lengthy backlog in the green-card process and reduce immigration levels that, the White House argues, have harmed American workers.
At the Capitol, the president’s allies also echoed administration officials. “President Trump has crafted a deal that is tough but more than generous,” said Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., an ardent Trump defender and sponsor of the Grassley plan. The president “wants this solved,” Perdue added. “And he wants it ended right now.”
At a House Budget Committee hearing, White House budget director Mick Mulvaney stated several times that the administration’s fiscal 2019 budget presumes Congress will strike a deal. “We assume that an agreement is reached on immigration, on DACA, between Republicans and Democrats,” he said.
Lawmakers have been negotiating under the premise that the bulk of DACA work permits will begin to expire March 5 – a deadline Trump set last fall, aimed at giving Congress time to develop a solution for the dreamers. But judges in California and New York have issued temporary injunctions, requiring the Trump administration to restart the program.
(c) 2018, The Washington Post · Ed O’Keefe, David Nakamura, Mike Debonis