Wednesday , February 14, 2018 - 10:00 PM
(c) 2018, The Washington Post.
WASHINGTON - 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 bipartisan senators late Wednesday circulated legislation that would fulfill Trump’s calls to grant legal status to 1.8 million immigrants, and would authorize $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 does not end a diversity visa lottery program that he wants eliminated.
Word of an agreement came as formal debate on immigration policy has mostly sputtered this week - a stalemate that has underscored the politically fraught nature of the showdown that is further complicated by GOP leaders’ insistence that the Senate act by week’s end.
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 a White House statement, 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,” complained 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, 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,” she said.
By the end of Wednesday, Collins’ group was touting the “Immigration Security and Opportunity Act” that they hope could garner the 60 votes needed to pass in the closely divided chamber. 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 cosponsors 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, new access roads and 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 or even earn a vote as early as Thursday.
Sen. Christopher Coons, D-Del., who supports the deal, explained that several Democrats may struggle to accept that the proposal includes “a truly robust border security” plan that guarantees significant spending over the next decade.
Aides to Rounds, Collins and other GOP senators didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment about details of the legislation.
Trump’s latest warning might also deter senators in both parties who are already anxious about debating such an emotionally difficult issue at the start of an election year.
Trump 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 closely divided Senate strongly oppose the Grassley plan.
Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said that the bill unfairly targets family-based immigration and that making such broad changes as part of a plan to legalize fewer than 2 million people “makes no sense.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who is gauging support for a House immigration 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 legislative solution for the dreamers. But judges in California and New York have issued temporary injunctions, requiring the Trump administration to restart the program.
The Washington Post’s Erica Werner contributed to this report.
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