Negotiations in the Senate on an immigration package that would protect the group of young immigrants known as Dreamers has kicked into high gear, with dozens of Democratic and Republican lawmakers meeting almost daily to attempt to craft a plan before their self-imposed deadline of Feb. 8. But as the senators boast to reporters about their bipartisan bonhomie and progress toward a deal, a fear hangs over the negotiations: that conservatives in the House of Representatives and a mercurial President advised by immigration hardliners will shoot down whatever they manage to produce.
“We’re caught in this vortex where Trump won’t negotiate and Republicans won’t support anything that Trump won’t sign,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) told TPM.
The early exposure Thursday night of the White House’s proposed immigration framework only complicates matters. The plan—which Democrats have already declared “dead on arrival”—would offer a pathway to citizenship for nearly 2 million immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children in exchange for deep cuts to legal immigration and tens of billions of dollars for walls on the country’s southern and northern borders.
While most Democrats say they could conceivably stomach the wall money—and have in the past voted for billions in border security funding—they say the visa cuts and abolition of most family-based immigration is a non-starter.
“I don’t have the appetite to completely redo the methodology of how we bring people into this country,” Murphy said. “There is room for for an increased skills assessment, but not at the expense of family reunification.”
Senators were further discouraged by the White House abruptly canceling a planned Monday briefing for leaders in the House and Senate. Ben Marten, a top aide for Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (IL), told TPM that the meeting was scheduled last Wednesday and unceremoniously called off Friday afternoon. While Republican lawmakers were briefed on a phone call with White House staff on Thursday, and the information was leaked to some reporters, Democratic lawmakers “have yet to receive so much as a fact sheet,” Marten said. “That’s not what you’d do if you were trying to build support for something on the Hill.”
Tyler Houlton, a spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security, insisted in a statement that the cancelation was “a scheduling issue, nothing more” and said the agency is working on nailing down a new time for the briefing.
The deepening distrust comes after weeks of mixed signals and reversals from President Trump as negotiations over the fate of upwards of one million immigrants whose protections the Trump administration revoked last year. Twice in the last few weeks, the President has agreed to the contours of a plan after meeting with lawmakers—first Sens. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) and Durbin, then Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY)—only to walk back the agreement shortly after, swayed by the hardline immigration views of White House staffers John Kelly and Stephen Miller.
“To my friends at the White House: you’ve been all over the board,” a frustrated Graham relayed to reporters on Thursday. “You haven’t been a reliable partner. The Senate’s going to move. Please be constructive as we go forward.”
The most helpful role the President could play, added Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), is to not play a role at all.
“The less he tweets and the less he jerks the wheel of the bus left and right, the more likely we will be to actually accomplish the goal of addressing this longstanding and challenging issue,” he said.
Senators participating in the immigration negotiations also fear that whatever bill they produce will meet the same fate as the 2013 comprehensive immigration reform bill: death in the House of Representatives.
Already, according to CNN, conservative lawmakers who heard the outline of the White House proposal on Thursday are up in arms, anxious that Trump is “giving away the farm” by offering a path to citizenship for DACA recipients and will stoke the wrath of the GOP base ahead of dicy midterm elections.
“When Republicans lose the majority in the House and Democrats have the House, and they use the House to impeach Trump and ramp up the Russia investigations, we’ll look back to this moment, and this is the moment that it turned,” a GOP aide told CNN following the call.
Instead, House conservatives have rallied behind a bill drafted by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) that would, among other hardline provisions opposed by Democrats, strip federal funding from sanctuary cities. Just as House Republicans are skeptical that a bipartisan Senate bill could pass their chamber, senators are doubtful about the chances of something like the Goodlatte bill.
“The test is: will it get Democratic support? If it doesn’t, it’s probably more of a talking point than it is a solution,” Graham told TPM. “After 10 years in the Senate, I’ve kind of figured out how this works. No partisan bill is going to pass, Republican or Democratic.”
Whether a deal protecting Dreamers can even make it out of the Senate, meanwhile, is an open question.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), a lead sponsor of the 2013 bill, is not on board, and has criticized the bipartisan negotiations and advocated for a much more conservative approach that includes cutting family-based immigration.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), meanwhile, has taken a stance even further to the right than the White House, vowing to vote against anything that grants a path to citizenship for any group of undocumented immigrants.
Yet even some of the most conservative members of the Senate have in recent weeks expressed some openness to a deal that protects DACA recipients.
“This is a relatively narrow, tailored issue,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) told reporters in a rare hallway scrum on Thursday. “We have a population of about 700,000 in the DACA program that most of us, Republicans and Democrats alike, would like to give legal protections to. The people in the DACA program were brought here as minors, through no fault of their own, before the age of accountability. So I think we can distinguish them from other illegal immigrants.”
Despite the tight timeline for action on an issue Congress has failed for decades to address, and despite the obstacles that senators, House lawmakers and the White House present, Graham and others attempting to negotiate a bill remain optimistic.
“I think there’s momentum to get a deal,” Graham said. “We’re tired of dealing with this, and I am sensing that we aren’t that far apart. So I hope we can get a big vote and that the President will find it acceptable.”
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