Republicans Divided on Minimum Needed for Immigration Deal

White House, conservatives pushing four pillars while others open to just two

Senate Republican Conference Chairman. John Thune, R-S.D., talks with reporters on Wednesday during the House and Senate Republican retreat at the Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Senate Republican Conference Chairman. John Thune, R-S.D., talks with reporters on Wednesday during the House and Senate Republican retreat at the Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted February 2, 2018 at 5:04am

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — Immigration negotiations are moving so slowly that congressional leaders haven’t even agreed on which policy areas must be addressed as part of a deal — a fissure that exists even within the Republican Party.

The White House and many House Republicans say that at a bare minimum, four pillars need to be addressed in any bill: border security, protections for “Dreamers” who will lose their legal status with the end of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, family-sponsored visas and the Diversity Visa lottery program.

But House Democrats and some senators of both parties say the only realistic path to a bipartisan deal is a narrowed focus on DACA, which is all Democrats really want, and border security, Republicans’ top priority.

“My own view is if we can solve DACA and border security, that may be the best we can hope for,” Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune told reporters here Thursday.

Watch: Trump Touts Party Unity, Year One Accomplishments in Speech to GOP Retreat

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House Republicans, more than half of whom favor a bill by House Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, are pushing back against efforts to narrow the scope.

“Making a suggestion that a two-pillar answer is going to get support in the House is a nonstarter,” House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows told reporters at the GOP retreat.

“We’re not going to do a few billion dollars for border security and have the same problem a decade from now, two decades from now, where we’re coming back and talking about what are we going to do with all these people who have come here as unaccompanied minors,” the North Carolina Republican said.

Resolving the DACA dilemma, boosting border security and curbing legal immigration “are all hand in glove,” Meadows said.

Trump administration view

The White House has also rejected the prospect of a narrower deal.

President Donald Trump’s immigration framework, released last week, focuses on the four pillars. He also discussed them in the State of the Union address Tuesday.

The administration is not open to a deal that does not address all four pillars, White House legislative affairs director Marc Short told reporters Monday, saying that addressing family-based visas and the diversity program must be part of a final plan.

“I feel like if we don’t, then we’re going to be back here in a few years,” he said.

While the White House is not turning its framework into legislative text, Short said he expects some senators are and suggests that could be the bill that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell brings to the floor the week of Feb. 12. The Kentucky Republican has said he would hold an open floor debate on immigration so long as the government remains open beyond Feb. 8, when stopgap funding runs out.

Thune on Thursday also raised the prospect of Trump’s plan serving as the starting point for Senate debate.

“The president’s made a good faith offer, and I think Democrats so far have rejected it,” he said. “But I really do feel like that could end up perhaps being a base bill in the Senate. I mean, we’ll see. I don’t know. I don’t think the leader has made any of those decisions.”

Trump wants his plan to “be the bill that the Senate votes on,” the president planned to tell lawmakers at the retreat Thursday, according to his prepared remarks. But he never made that specific request in his speech here at the retreat.

“I know that the Senate is planning to bring an immigration bill on the floor, to the floor, in the coming weeks,” he said, starting along the prepared remarks.

“And I’m asking that the framework that we submitted, with great flexibility, great flexibility,” the president said, before putting the onus on Democrats.

“If the Democrats choose to filibuster a framework that includes a generous path to citizenship or something that is not fair, we are not going to approve it. … So we’ll either have something that’s fair and equitable and secure, or we’re going to have nothing at all,” Trump said.

Democratic divide

Democrats are also divided on what immigration policy areas should be addressed before the DACA program ends March 5.

“The first two we are discussing,” House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer said Tuesday of DACA and border security. “The third and fourth we think — we’re not in agreement with their position, and more importantly, or as importantly, we think that belongs in the comprehensive immigration basket.”

Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois and Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina crafted a proposal with four other senators of both parties that attempts to address all four pillars. The White House has rejected the Durbin-Graham deal, which Durbin has said covers all four immigration issues needed to get Trump’s support.

Hoyer said that doesn’t mean Durbin disagrees with House Democrats, who have concerns about ending the Diversity Visa program and curbing family-based immigration.

“We are in agreement that we want to protect the DACA, absolutely. We are in agreement that we need to talk about how you make the border secure. And I frankly think if you ask Senator Durbin privately what his view is, he is in agreement with us,” Hoyer said.

Durbin has generally avoided criticizing his fellow Democrats, but has suggested that Republicans are floating a more narrow immigration deal in order to limit the deal on DACA. He has said he would not back off a path to citizenship for Dreamers, which many conservatives consider to be amnesty for lawbreakers.

The House GOP conference has begun discussing citizenship, since Trump’s framework calls for that status for 1.8 million Dreamers and Democrats have made clear such a pathway is required in a final deal. Trump reinforced the framework during his State of the Union address.

“Trump threw down the gauntlet last night with pillar number one being some kind of full citizenship, status, pathway,” Republican Study Committee Chairman Mark Walker said Wednesday.

The North Carolina Republican expressed doubt that conservatives would accept “blank-check citizenship.”

“The question it’s going to come down to … [is] will it be defined as a special pathway, or will it be an area where you go through the process and then get in line?” Walker said.

Meadows was a bit more clear. “Many of us in the Freedom Caucus do not have a problem with a pathway to citizenship. We have a problem with a special pathway to citizenship, and there’s the distinction,” he said.

But with the divisions over the other three pillars standing in the way of a deal, the answer to the citizenship question is unlikely to come soon.

“The Democrats are getting to a place where there’s such a personal vendetta, almost a hatred for Trump, that even a good deal that was far beyond what former President Obama offered, I don’t know — I think they turned their nose up — it may be a moot issue when all this is said and done,” Walker said. “We hope not.”

Sen. James Lankford, an Oklahoma Republican who has been involved in some immigration negotiations, predicted Republicans would not be unified after they leave West Virginia.

“In all likelihood, no, we won’t have a single unified position on that,” he said.

Joe Williams and John T. Bennett contributed to this report. Watch: Why Does Congress ‘Retreat’?

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