Senators Try To Tune Out Trump’s Bluster As Immigration Deadline Nears

US President Donald Trump delivers remarks at Sheffer Corporation in Blue Ash, Ohio on February 5, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Over the last few days, as Republican and Democratic lawmakers scrambled to put together an immigration deal before Thursday’s deadline, President Trump has done his best to upend the chessboard.

In a divisive State of the Union speech he made false and misleading statements about current immigration law, and generally characterized immigrants as terrorists and gang members. Two days later, he suggested in another speech that he would veto any immigration bill that does not match the controversial outline he put forward that slashes legal immigration. On Monday, in a speech ostensibly about tax reform, he said of Democrats who did not give him a standing ovation: “Can we call that treason?”

Earlier in the same speech, in an extended riff on House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Trump scoffed, “I’m supposed to make a deal with her?”

At least once a day, the President’s social media feed spouts messages like “Blame the Dems!” and “the Dems seem not to care.”

When Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Chris Coons (D-DE) attempted to break the current immigration impasse with a bipartisan bill, Trump dismissed it as “a total waste of time.”

As dozens of lawmakers attempt hold together a delicate bipartisan coalition interested in protecting 700,000 young immigrants known as Dreamers from deportation, the President’s rhetoric is threatening to torpedo the hopes for a deal. The only path forward many lawmakers see involves tuning out the President, passing a bill that meets some but not all of the White House’s immigration demands, and hoping Trump feels pressured to sign it anyway.

“I don’t think we’re paying much attention,” Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) told TPM about the impact of the President’s bluster. “I mean, obviously we would like his support. If he’s serious about border security and stabilizing the legal status of all these young people, I would hope that he would help us get this across the finish line.” 

McCaskill, who gathered with more than two dozen senators from both sides of the aisle Monday night to continue the painstaking work of negotiating an immigration compromise, said the group is “very close” to a deal.

“We’re going to get to this one way or another within the next week,” she insisted.

But other lawmakers acknowledged that the Senate does not yet have even have a “base bill” to bring to the floor this week to begin the immigration debate. White House director of legislative affairs Marc Short, who visited the Capitol Monday night, told reporters, “I think we’d advocate our framework to be the base bill.”

But Republicans and Democrats alike told TPM there is almost no chance of that happening, as the White House framework includes changes to legal immigration that are deeply controversial.

“It would literally cut by millions of people, who American citizens can sponsor coming in to the United States,” Coons told reporters on a conference call on Monday. “That’s a very divisive proposal. Getting Democrats to embrace it is very difficult and it’s part of the reason we’re currently at an impasse.”

But McCain and Coons’ proposal, which mirrors a bipartisan bill in the House, was not embraced by senators on Monday as a viable base bill either. A main issue several lawmakers raised is that the bill does not allocate money for a border wall, but rather directs the Department of Homeland Security to study and present a report to Congress on what infrastructure is needed on the border.

“Unless you have border security, it would be very difficult to have the White House do anything with it, and be very difficult for the White House to endorse it to the House,” Sen. Mike Rounds (R-SD). “Look, our goal here is to get results. But I don’t think there’s any consensus yet in the group.”

House Speaker Paul Ryan underscored this dilemma in a press conference Tuesday morning, flatly declaring that he would refuse to take up any immigration bill that does not have the President’s blessing.

As lawmakers scramble to thread this needle before the protections for DACA recipients expire on March 5, they must contend with a president who, in Coons’ words, “jerks the wheel of the bus left and right” and daily threatens to drive the effort off the road.

“I think people are aware of his comments,” Rounds said carefully. “But everybody is just taking it in stride.”

“I think people have become accustomed,” added Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) dryly.

But as Trump continues to insist that Congress vote on his immigration framework and nothing else, some lawmakers are losing their patience.

“I’m sorry, that’s not how the Senate works,” Coons said on Monday’s conference call. “The president needs to let the Senate work its will. Sometimes he makes his best contribution when he lays out where he stands and then steps back. He is least constructive when he does what he he’s doing now: first welcoming to the White House a big bipartisan group and promising to take the heat if they bring him a deal, and then when they do, rejecting it with vulgar language.” 

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