In the hectic days since President Donald Trump announced his decision to terminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, putting 800,000 immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children at risk of deportation as early as next March, the broad outlines of a bipartisan deal to protect that population have begun to emerge.
Republicans and Democrats alike have voiced openness to some kind of agreement that pairs relief for former DACA recipients with throwing money at border security and immigration enforcement. (Democratic leaders originally demanded a clean, stand-alone DACA fix but almost immediately backed down after it became clear Republicans would never allow it to come to the floor.)
But as with so much else this year, the wild card is Trump himself.
For weeks the president has been sending mixed signals on DACA—one day calling the program unconstitutional, the next day demanding Congress reinstate it, and the next day vowing he would “revisit” its termination, a promise that threatens to remove Congress’ motivation to pass a bill.
Then, on Thursday, Democratic leaders cheerfully boasted that Trump had reached out to them directly.
“I spoke once again to the president this morning,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) declared on the Senate floor. “He called. He said he wanted to help with the DREAM Act.”
In her weekly press conference, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) smilingly recounted a similar conversation with Trump about the DREAM Act. “The president said he supports that and would sign it, but we have to get it passed,” she said.
Pelosi added that at her insistence, Trump tweeted Thursday morning to reassure young immigrants that “the six-month period is not a period of round up.”
For all of those (DACA) that are concerned about your status during the 6 month period, you have nothing to worry about – No action!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 7, 2017
Rank and file lawmakers were more leery of the president’s behavior.
“He’ll probably be calling Chuck Schumer names tomorrow,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), who burst out laughing when TPM asked him if Democrats can depend on Trump as a partner on the DREAM Act.
“I’m glad that after sticking it to the DREAMers he’s showing some low-level degree of compassion,” he added. “But it’d be helpful if he were up here helping us pass a bill. All of the conditions that Cornyn and others are putting on the package are making it really hard to pass.”
Republicans, even those who support the DREAM Act, are skeptical as well.
Asked if he knows where the president stands on DACA, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) shot back: “No, do you?”
Informed that Trump had reportedly promised Pelosi that he would sign the DREAM Act if it got to his desk, McCain dryly observed: “Glad to hear it. Let’s see what he says tomorrow.”
Republicans also have good reason to wince at Trump’s foray into Capitol Hill’s fight over the DREAM Act, as they continue to nurse their wounds from a multi-month failed effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Amid the health care debate, Trump’s ever-changing positions gave Republicans whiplash. After forcing vulnerable House Republicans to walk the plank on a deeply unpopular bill that would have gutted Medicaid in addition to repealing Obamacare, Trump first held an over-the-top Rose Garden celebration for the bill, then called it “mean.” When the bill moved to the Senate, Trump alternately called for a repeal-and-delay measure and for doing nothing and “letting Obamacare fail,” depending on how he felt and with whom he had met that particular day.
His stance on DACA has been similarly conflicted, and as with health care, Trump reportedly does not understand the policies at play and their impact on the country.
The New York Times reported that “as late as one hour before the decision was to be announced, administration officials privately expressed concern that Mr. Trump might not fully grasp the details of the steps he was about to take, and when he discovered their full impact, would change his mind.”
This seemed to play out as predicted, leaving Congress at a loss as to how to move forward.
“I want to hear him say what he’ll sign,” complained Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ).
Despite Pelosi’s insistence that Trump has promised to sign the DREAM Act, the public has not heard this from Trump directly. And the promise may be moot, as the Republicans who control which bills come to the House and Senate floor have shown zero willingness to allow a vote on the DREAM Act, and are calling instead for a package immigration deal with enough border security funding to give them political cover.
When House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) was asked directly Thursday morning if he would put the DREAM Act on the floor, he demurred.
“I’m going to put a consensus plan on the floor,” he said. “It is only reasonable that in fixing this serious, real problem that we address the root cause, which is that we don’t have a secure border.”
Congress members have over the past few months shown themselves increasingly willing to ignore Trump entirely and pass bills to limit his power. But in this instance, several lawmakers said, some clarity and direction from the White House is vital to passing something before the six-month ticking time bomb on DACA explodes.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), a leading sponsor of the DREAM Act, pleaded earlier this week for Trump to take a leading role.
“Help us. Help us in the House. Help us in the Senate,” he said. “Get involved personally. Work the phones. Try to find a consensus here.”
McCain, who helped lead the failed 2013 effort to pass comprehensive immigration reform that included the DREAM Act, agreed that Trump needs to clearly lay out what he supports on immigration reform and not keep changing his mind or throwing up his hands.
“I’ve never heard of a president simply saying, ‘Congress, you do it,'” he grumbled.