Leaders of Congress will sit down with key White House staff on Wednesday, and negotiations on immigration policy could hang in the balance.
As the Senate comes back Wednesday and the House is set to follow next week, lawmakers are returning to their unfinished business that was punted at the end of last year — including a potential deal on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy.
Sources familiar with ongoing talks say there were no substantial developments over recess, although senators working on negotiations did keep talking and several groups in the House left town with all-but-completed outlines that they opted to wait on rather than leave open to public attack over the break.
But even as negotiations have been making progress, lawmakers have felt President Donald Trump’s personal buy-in has remained elusive and, yet, the key to any ultimate deal.
The meeting Wednesday is designed to discuss a deal on budget caps on domestic and military spending with the White House legislative chief and director of the Office of Management and Budget. But Democrats have insisted that any spending deal correspond with resolving DACA — an Obama administration program that protected young undocumented immigrants who came to the US as children from deportation, which Trump has elected to end.
Trump himself has sent mixed signals to Congress on a deal. When he decided to end the program in September, with a six-month buffer before the bulk of the two-year permits begin expiring, Trump urged Congress to act and praised recipients of DACA as “good, educated and accomplished young people.”
Over the holidays, though, Trump demanded that any deal must include his border wall, cuts to family-based migration, ending the diversity lottery, “etc.,” he added. On Tuesday, he claimed Democrats were “doing nothing” to save the program that he is terminating and insisted that DACA advocates would come to favor Republicans.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has pledged to hold a vote on an immigration deal if one is reached before January 31.
Negotiations but no breakthroughs
Before Congress left for the holidays, a hodgepodge of groups had been making progress on putting DACA into law along with some border security and immigration enforcement measures.
Senate talks led by Democrat Dick Durbin and Republican Lindsey Graham, which include Republicans Jeff Flake, Cory Gardner, James Lankford and Thom Tillis and Democrat Michael Bennet, are the most substantial discussions, with the more conservative members among the group in touch with Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn and Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley.
On the House side, a handful of Republican members from Speaker Paul Ryan’s immigration working group — though not some key moderate members — had a meeting at the White House the Tuesday before Christmas as they craft a conservative proposal for release. That meeting included Reps. Mike McCaul, Bob Goodlatte, Raul Labrador, Martha McSally and Mark Meadows, according to a source familiar and first reported by Politico. But the product of that conservative effort is likely to be a starting point in negotiations that will be immediately rejected by Democrats.
Other bipartisan efforts were making progress before the break, including the Problem Solvers Caucus and efforts by Florida Rep. Carlos Curbelo and Texas Rep. Will Hurd in communication with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. But as it became clear no deal would make it to the floor in December, negotiators opted to hold off on publicly releasing any compromises.
And House leadership on both sides has yet to endorse any of the efforts, leaving it unclear which might have legs.
The key players all have eyes on Wednesday’s meeting as a sign of where Trump might be on the issue.
Throughout the process, lawmakers have felt that the President could make the deal-making easier — or more difficult — with a single tweet.
While negotiators hope that if they’re able to reach a deal, Trump will be happy to sign something and consider it a victory, there is also a fear that Trump could publicly criticize the deal and scuttle hopes for a compromise.
Republicans who are eager to help the sympathetic population of young immigrants, most of whom have known no other country than America, have hoped that the President will provide them with cover to vote for a deal by coming out in vocal support of it. But hardliners on the President’s staff, like close aide Stephen Miller, have generated policy priorities from the White House that are filled with aggressive policies that Democrats — whose votes will be necessary to pass anything — consider poison pills.