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Analysis: Trump’s Hawks Won Senate Immigration Debate (By Not Losing)

White House remains well-positioned for coming rounds as DACA deadline looms

White House aides Stephen Miller, fourth from right, and Marc Short, second from right, were instrumental in preventing bipartisan immigration proposals President Donald Trump opposed from passing the Senate. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
White House aides Stephen Miller, fourth from right, and Marc Short, second from right, were instrumental in preventing bipartisan immigration proposals President Donald Trump opposed from passing the Senate. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

President Donald Trump’s immigration hard-liners proved Thursday it is possible to win even when the outcome of a battle is, on paper, a draw.

An immigration overhaul amendment backed by the administration received fewer votes Thursday than three other Senate proposals that also failed to pass the Senate. But the White House emerged from that chamber’s underwhelming and unproductive floor debate in strong shape for future fights on the issue.

At first glance, the vote results suggest the White House was the big loser Thursday. After all, a Senate immigration measure it endorsed got the fewest ‘aye’ votes — 39 — with two others garnering the support of 54 senators and another getting 52 affirmative votes.

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But a March 5 deadline Trump set to address the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program that shields 690,000 “Dreamers” from deportation is fast approaching. That means this was not a one-round match.

And while White House immigration hawks — led by Chief of Staff John F. Kelly and chief domestic policy adviser Stephen Miller, with assistance from Legislative Affairs Director Marc Short — and their allies in the Senate took a few hard shots on Thursday, there are ample reasons why they are well-positioned for the decisive later rounds.

Here are four reasons why:

Strategic patience

Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese general and prominent military strategist, once advised that “victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.”

The White House’s immigration hard-liners are not exactly known for their Sun Tzu-like restraint. But in a tactical shift, this camp resisted lashing out at its opponents — a hallmark of the Trump White House — for several weeks.

The hawks huddled with reporters in a West Wing office on Jan. 25 to discuss the White House’s immigration overhaul framework. The senior officials who briefed and took question from reporters that day — granted anonymity to be candid — were eager to outflank a group of nearly 20 Republican and Democratic senators who were busily working on the chamber’s first major bipartisan immigration plan since a 2013 version overwhelmingly passed that chamber only to go nowhere in the House.

Though one of the senior officials at times used the kind of brash rhetoric Trump uses and pro-immigrant groups have condemned, the objective that day was to gain an advantage in the messaging game. They described the White House framework as “a compromise on many fronts” and a “down-the-middle” proposal capable of garnering “a real groundswell of support from serious” members of both parties.

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An erratic and aggressive White House suddenly was displaying a notable amount of patience. They could afford to be less aggressive: Democratic leaders had already essentially agreed any overhaul measure would give them $25 billion to build a Southern border wall.

Compromise the compromise

As the bipartisan group — the self-described Common Sense Coalition —revealed its plan ahead of Thursday’s votes, the White House at first held fire before steadily ramping up the severity of its attacks on the proposal and the others that got floor votes. The White House first targeted a bipartisan plan from Arizona Republican John McCain and Delaware Democrat Chris Coons, saying it would “increase illegal immigration, surge chain migration, continue catch and release, and give a pathway to citizenship to convicted alien felons.”

Then the administration turned its attention to the larger Common Sense Coalition’s bill. The first veto threat came in the form of a statement that warned the group was proposing to “drastically change our national immigration policy for the worse by weakening border security and undercutting existing immigration law.” In a sign of things to come Thursday, the statement also made this claim: “The amendment would undermine the safety and security of American families and impede economic growth for American workers.”

The wording was tame in comparison to what came next, a call with reporters lambasting the “Common Sense” plan and its authors. “We are not being hyperbolic in describing how massively reckless and dangerous this proposal is,” a senior official said Thursday, also calling it “totally and completely unserious,” “reckless,” and “spectacularly poorly drafted” while declaring it “dead on arrival.”

The same official then tried his best to discredit one of its lead authors: “At some point, you have to ask yourself the question to whether Lindsey Graham’s involvement in drafting those bills is that instead of being a solution to the problem, Lindsey Graham’s presence on those bills is the problem.”

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The bipartisan group had predicted its plan was the only game in town — at least on the Capitol’s north side — when it came to clearing the 60-vote threshold to end debate. Not only did it fail to do so, it went down with the White House arguing it would threaten national security and American families’ economic well-being.

Purposely adhering to Sun Tzu’s teachings or not, the West Wing hawks only went to war with Graham and their other Senate foes after it was clear the bipartisan plan was doomed. But, in so doing, they altered the terms for the coming battles.

Lost leverage?

Democrats pounced on the 39 votes the Trump-backed measure received. “This vote is proof that President Trump’s plan will never become law. If he would stop torpedoing bipartisan efforts, a good bill would pass,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said in a statement.

Yet as this round of the overhaul fight concluded and the combatants retreated to their respective corners, it did not appear the president had lost much leverage. Put another way, Trump and his immigration hawks did not lose any more leverage for the coming rounds than their opponents did. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made that clear shortly after the four immigration measures were defeated.

“The president came, in my view, more than halfway to meet Democrats on this issue,” the Kentucky Republican said. “If a solution is developed in the future that can pass both the House and the Senate and be signed into law by the president, it should be considered. But for that to happen, Democrats will need to take a second look at these core elements of necessary reform.”

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This statement breezed past the fact that only 36 Republicans voted for Trump’s preferred version of legislation. But McConnell’s language could be summed up thus: He who wields the veto pen wields great leverage — especially given the Dreamers’ upcoming deportation threat, which Democrats fear.

Status quo minus DACA

Reading between the lines of the statements by senior White House officials over the last few months — particularly those in the immigration hard-line camp — all indications are this is the administration’s Plan B: maintaining the status quo while terminating DACA.

After all, White House and Homeland Security officials describe every other overhaul plan out there as little more than proposals to take steps “backwards” when it came to who can and cannot come into the United States.

In an unusual move for a department or agency, the Department of Homeland Security issued blistering statements about the other Senate measures, saying one “destroys the ability of the men and women from [DHS] to remove millions of illegal aliens” and ensures “a massive wave of new illegal immigration.” Another senior administration official who also briefed reporters on Thursday said DHS intends to consider the DACA program terminated the day after March 5 — despite Trump’s floating the idea he can change the deadline. This is complicated by federal court rulings that have placed the order to end the program on hold.

Then there is Kelly, who drew criticism last week for saying that some of the young undocumented immigrations who did not sign up for DACA protections were “too lazy to get off their asses.” If there is an emotional or moral affinity for Dreamers or would-be Dreamers in the West Wing, it is difficult to detect.

That means, for the Trump administration, any of the other three Senate measures passing would have constituted a major legislative loss.

The White House immigration hawks didn’t win, but the camp certainly did not lose very much. That’s because keeping the status quo intact — especially existing immigration enforcement measures — while ending DACA — which it views as a central part of former President Barack Obama’s pattern of executive overreach — is, for Trump’s hard-liners, increasingly palatable.

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