How many pillars does it take to make an immigration deal stand? Right now, Washington can't agree.
As lawmakers rush to come up with a solution for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, there's disagreement just on the scope of the deal -- even weeks after President Donald Trump gathered lawmakers to discuss his "four pillars."
Trump reiterated his desire Thursday for Congress to pass his framework
Bipartisan lawmakers have advocated for a narrower deal
Trump reiterated his desire Thursday for Congress to pass what he has proposed: a pathway to citizenship for DACA recipients and more eligible young undocumented immigrants; border security including some enhanced immigration enforcement authorities; heavily cutting family-based migration; and ending the diversity visa lottery.
"I know that the Senate is planning to bring an immigration bill to the floor in the coming weeks, and I am asking that the framework we submitted ... that something really positive will come out of it," Trump told the Republican congressional retreat Thursday, reiterating his "four pillars" plan.
But his proposal has been dismissed as dead on arrival by Democrats, whose votes will be necessary to pass it, and some Republicans and Democrats alike are pushing for a "two pillar" deal, instead.
"My own view is, and I'm only speaking for myself here, I think that if we can solve DACA and border security, that may be the best we can hope for," Senate No. 3 Republican John Thune of South Dakota said Wednesday, breaking with others in his party.
The argument for narrowing the deal is focused on what can actually pass. Senators working to craft a bipartisan compromise are aiming for something that can get even more votes than the 60 required to advance legislation, which in the 51-49 GOP-controlled Senate will require a good number of Democrats.
In the House, moderate and conservative Republicans have been far apart on immigration, and many hardliners on the right have rejected the White House proposal as too liberal, meaning a compromise in that chamber will also likely require Democratic votes.
But Democrats have found a number of poison pills in Trump's pillars, including the cuts to family-based migration and ending the diversity lottery without another way to ensure immigrants are admitted from countries otherwise underrepresented in migration to the US. Not only do they oppose the massive cuts to legal immigration and hardship for families such a plan would entail, they say, some suspect the President has ulterior motives, especially after his "shithole countries" comments.
"If Republicans believe that we're ready to destroy family-based visa system, which we believe is the bedrock of our democracy, (they're wrong)," Illinois' Rep. Luis Gutierrez said this week. "We put this in the context of racist remarks from the President. There's nobody in line from Norway, Mr. President. There's lot of people from countries you don't like, and we think that is what is behind this."
'Gang of Six' was tough sell among Democrats
A previously unreported standoff with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus reveals the tensions even among Democrats on the issue -- where the so-called "Gang of Six" bill that Republicans rejected as too far to the left was too far to the right at first for Hispanic Democrats.
According to two sources familiar, the day after the President rejected the Gang of Six compromise and made his "shithole countries" comments, Gang of Six member Sen. Bob Menendez, D-New Jersey, held an emergency phone briefing for CHC members. One source described participants of the call as "furious." Another source characterized the tone as "concerned."
The Gang of Six offer included nearly $3 billion for Trump's wall and border technology, ended the diversity lottery but used those visas with a higher bar for underrepresented countries and recipients of temporary protected status, and addressed "chain migration," or family migration, by blocking parents of DACA recipients who came here illegally from ever being citizens. But the bill did offer those parents indefinitely renewable legal status to work in the US.
After the contentious call, Menendez and the group worked over the weekend to get CHC members more on board with the compromise and he personally met with House CHC members to answer their questions, which brought them around enough to the Gang of Six bill. After that was rejected, they are less likely to accept further concessions.
CHC members have pushed for a bill from caucus Whip Pete Aguilar, a California Democrat, and Republican Rep. Will Hurd of Texas that is just border security and a DACA fix.
2-pillar deal splits Republicans
Members of a bipartisan group of roughly 20 senators who have been meeting since the shutdown have also been arguing for a two-pillar solution, as Thune articulated.
"We all need to understand that there are two things that are critical: dealing with (DACA recipients), because we're up against the March deadline, and dealing with border security," said North Dakota's Democrat Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, leaving one meeting of the group.
"If we can't get a deal that includes (the four pillars) we may have to pare it down to two pillars and just do border and DACA as plan B," Florida's GOP Sen. Marco Rubio said this week.
But other Republicans, including Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas, have repeatedly rejected calls to narrow the deal.
"Everybody wants to alter reality in a way that suits their needs, but the reality is the President said there has to be four pillars, and I think people just need to accept that and deal with it," Cornyn told reporters recently.
Republicans including Oklahoma's Sen. James Lankford, South Carolina's Sen. Lindsey Graham and South Dakota's Sen. Mike Rounds have all noted that the family-based migration issue must be part of a deal because once recipients are citizens, they will have the same ability as any American to sponsor family members.
"Those four pillars are really interconnected -- especially the chain migration issue," Lankford said.
"The day you give a pathway to citizenship, you've got a chain migration problem ... so you've got to deal with that and I've got some ideas to do it," said Graham, who helped author the Gang of Six bill. "The issue is chain migration ... but if we can solve that, I think we can get this done."