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How the No. 2 Leaders Have Taken Over the DACA Debate

Talks between Hill’s second-in-command honchos represents best shot at accord

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy has spearheaded the immigration negotiations among the Hill’s No. 2 leaders. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy has spearheaded the immigration negotiations among the Hill’s No. 2 leaders. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The No. 2s. The deputies. The gang of four.

There are a lot of names for the four congressional leaders engaged in bipartisan, bicameral talks on immigration, but one thing has become increasingly clear over the past week: The group is Congress’s best shot at reaching an elusive deal to protect young undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers from deportation.

The four negotiators — House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin and House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer — all rank second in leadership of their caucuses and are equipped to describe the consensus views, where they exist, of the members they represent.

The stakes are high for the deputies as they try to privately hash out a compromise amid public discord about how to replace the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program and beef up border security.

Publicly their caucuses are pushing for drastically different solutions, and marrying those different approaches is no easy task.

The pressure is especially great for McCarthy, who organized the No. 2 talks, as it could affect any ambitions the California Republican may harbor about mounting another run for speaker one day. His conference is easily the most divided on immigration.

Watch: Clock’s Ticking on Deal to Dodge a Government Shutdown

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The No. 2s and their staffs took the reins of the high-level immigration talks last week after a Tuesday meeting at the White House with President Donald Trump and various Senate and House lawmakers from both parties.

Until that point, the top four congressional leaders — Speaker Paul D. Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi — had been sporadically discussing the matter as part of broad-ranging talks on government funding matters.

The No. 1s are continuing talks around raising the sequestration caps for defense and nondefense spending, which is key to unlocking a deal on a broader omnibus spending deal.

“I think the caps deal is very, very close, and I think the Democrats are holding out on the caps deal over these DACA negotiations,” Ryan told reporters Wednesday.

Republicans have sought to delink the two issues, so the deputizing of the No. 2s to lead the immigration negotiations makes some strategic sense.

But those involved in the talks suggest the formation of the group was more natural than that.

All four No. 2s were the highest-ranking leaders to attend the White House meeting last Tuesday. Afterward, McCarthy suggested they continue the talks started at the confab and the No. 2 negotiations were born.

‘We stay at the table’

The deputies’ discussions have continued since then with the most recent meeting Wednesday continuing to yield progress, according to participants.

“I think at the end of the day this conversation [is] at this table,” McCarthy said after Wednesday’s meeting, which was held in his office. “The only principle I said is that we stay at the table and we solve the problem.”

McCarthy’s shepherding of the issue is notable given that immigration has stymied ambitious House GOP leaders before.

It was a factor in the primary upset of his predecessor, former Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, and one of the reasons conservatives tried to push out former Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio.

While he is not in any electoral danger, McCarthy will face the consequences, whether good or bad, within his conference for whatever deal emerges from the No. 2 negotiations.

That matters because amid speculation Ryan may not seek another term as speaker, there’s talk of McCarthy being interested in mounting another bid for the gavel.

McCarthy ran to replace Boehner as speaker in 2015 but ultimately dropped out of the race amid questions about whether he could secure the necessary 218 GOP floor votes.

The conference anointed Ryan as the only viable candidate, notably with a promise Ryan made to conservatives not to bring an immigration bill to the floor unless it had the support of a majority of Republicans.

“I think McCarthy understands that his political future is at stake here and he should not make a mistake on this issue,” said House Freedom Caucus member Raúl R. Labrador of Idaho, who chairs the House Judiciary Immigration Subcommittee. “So, yes, I think we trust that he’s not just going to look out for our best interest, but he’s looking out for his best interest. And the best interest for Kevin McCarthy is to make sure he doesn’t screw this one up.”

McCarthy’s willingness to take the lead on the immigration negotiations provides two arguments: One, he understands he’s unlikely to find an agreement that appeases most House Republicans and has no ambitions to run for speaker again. Or two, he sees the opportunity to negotiate a near-impossible deal as something that could redefine his reputation if he’s successful.

Labrador predicts it’s the latter.

“I think it’s smart,” he said. “I think if he navigates this position — he doesn’t have to have a solution. He doesn’t have to have a final outcome, but if he appears to negotiate in good faith on this issue and hold strong to the position of the House, I think it will serve him very well.”

A GOP source familiar with the No. 2 negotiations said leadership considerations have not factored into McCarthy’s decision to form the group or had any bearing on the talks.

The source said it was the deputies’ immigration chops, and their presence at last week’s White House meeting, that led to them taking the lead on the negotiations.

Lawmakers and aides have described their qualifications as such: McCarthy hails from California, a state with a heavy immigrant population and diverse views on the matter.

Cornyn represents Texas and is  thus familiar with the security needs along the southern border with Mexico.

Durbin and Hoyer have long been Democratic champions on the Dreamer issue and have also been involved in past comprehensive immigration talks.

Where do they start?

One of the primary questions about the No. 2 talks is where are they starting. There have been numerous DACA, border security and broader immigration bills offered by Democrats and Republicans on both sides of the Capitol.

The four deputies are “trying to aggregate all the ideas that are out there to come to a consensus,” Ryan said at a WisPolitics event Friday.

Both Ryan and McConnell have authorized the No. 2 talks, but have made clear that whatever immigration bill gets brought to the House and Senate floors needs to have Trump’s support.

The White House is involved in the No. 2 discussions, with either Chief of Staff John F. Kelly or Legislative Affairs Director Marc Short, and sometimes both, attending the meetings.

“There are a lot of people on both sides of the aisle trying to get an outcome on DACA,” McConnell told reporters Wednesday after the weekly GOP policy lunch. “An outcome involves the signature of the president of the United States. So what I’m waiting for in terms of making a decision on floor time is, ‘Are we dealing with an issue that has a chance to become law?’”

General agreement out of last week’s White House meeting was to focus the negotiations in four areas: DACA, border security, family-based visas and the diversity visa lottery program. House Democrats, including Hoyer, said they don’t see the latter two as part of a deal.

Rank-and-file members of the various caucuses are all pushing different things to their leadership, so how the No. 2s represent those requests and square them into one massive deal remains to be seen.

Because of the challenges, GOP lawmakers and aides have suggested a deal is weeks away. Democrats, mostly because of their own sense of urgency rather than a sense of significant progress, say they remain hopeful a deal will come together this week.

The four caucus viewpoints can be summarized as follows:

House Republicans: A majority want to vote on a measure by Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte that would fund Trump’s requested border wall, end the diversity visa lottery program and terminate extended family visas. It provides a three-year renewable status for current DACA recipients. GOP leaders have yet to commit to bring it to the floor, partially because it’s unclear if it has enough Republican support to pass on its own.

House Democrats: The caucus has long been pushing for a vote on a “clean” measure to provide DACA recipients and other young undocumented immigrants with a path to citizenship. Leadership has suggested reasonable border security proposals could be paired with that.

That two-pronged approach is gaining traction among House Democrats as the Congressional Hispanic Caucus on Wednesday advocated a bipartisan measure by Reps. Will Hurd, R-Texas, and Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., that addresses DACA recipients and some border security but not a southern border wall.

Senate Republicans: Many GOP senators have criticized the Senate’s gang of six proposal, declaring as dead the measure negotiated by Durbin, GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham and four other senators.

They’re now placing their hopes on the No. 2 talks but tensions remain high as negotiations continue. Some GOP senators are skeptical Durbin will negotiate in good faith with the No. 2s while he continues to push for the gang of six bill.

“I always thought gangs were formed when they could guarantee the vote threshold to get to 60. To me at least, if that’s really the way it’s used, there’s not a baseline of votes to get there,” North Carolina GOP Sen. Thom Tillis said. 

Senate Democrats: Like House Democrats, they’re pushing for a DACA solution to be part of the continuing resolution. Many have said they generally support the Durbin-Graham proposal and continuing negotiations over it.

Others also support Durbin in his No. 2 talks and have faith he’ll reach a deal.

“He’s made it clear that he wants to translate the values of the Dreamers, the hard work and the commitment to family, and get them justice, but also find something that’s politically doable,” Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden said.

Joe Williams contributed to this report.