Talks on an immigration deal that are inextricably linked with government funding remained stalled Wednesday, after top White House officials fanned out across Capitol Hill to meet with lawmakers in both parties as a critical Friday deadline draws closer.
Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus said their hourlong meeting with White House chief of staff John Kelly was “positive” — a dramatic change in tone from their contentious encounters with him in the past — but was mostly a rehashing of talking points that doesn’t bring the two sides closer to an agreement. Kelly later visited another meeting of both parties’ No. 2 leaders in the House and Senate, but one key player in those talks described the two sides as no closer to an agreement.
“Nothing was agreed on,” Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) told reporters of the bipartisan meeting Kelly attended on Wednesday after his visit with the Hispanic Caucus.
Republican aides have said any immigration deal that can pass both chambers will have to come from that group of senior lawmakers: Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Durbin. But Democrats have been pessimistic that the talks will yield anything of substance.
The bipartisan meeting included “a long, far-reaching conversation about immigration issues,” Durbin said.
But he recalled underscoring the urgency of the plight facing undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children and warning participants that “to try to solve all the immigration issues on the backs of the Dreamers is unfair and impossible by Friday.”
A deal to protect so-called Dreamers isn’t necessarily needed to keep the government open past Friday. House Republicans have approved the past two short-term spending bills on their own, and vulnerable Democrats in the Senate — where at least nine Democratic votes are needed — have not indicated they would be willing to shut the government down over the issue.
Still, Senate Democratic swing votes began signaling Wednesday that their votes would not be easy to win as the GOP lurches toward its fourth spending patch since September. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a lead negotiator of a bipartisan immigration deal Trump rejected last week, said on Wednesday that he would oppose the short-term spending bill.
And House Republicans have had more difficulty rounding up votes on their side this time, with both conservatives and defense hawks loath to vote for another spending stopgap.
Kelly left the meeting with Democrats upbeat, and sounded equally positive after a subsequent meeting with a group of pro-immigration Republicans, including Reps. Will Hurd (R-Texas) Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.).
“Both sides of the Hill, both sides of the aisle, have agreed to meet in a smaller group and come up with what they think is the best DACA deal, and then that will of course be presented to the president,” Kelly said, referencing the ongoing bicameral talks between the No. 2 congressional leaders. He was referring to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allows undocumented immigrants brought to the country as minors to avoid deportation and obtain work permits.
But neither he nor members of the Hispanic Caucus gave any indication that congressional negotiators would reach an immigration deal with President Donald Trump by Friday, the deadline Democrats have set if Republicans want their votes on a short-term spending bill to keep the government open.
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), who attended Kelly’s meeting with the Hispanic Caucus on Wednesday, later warned that the bipartisan group of No. 2 leaders, “from some of the insights that we get, is all about delay, but not about solutions.”
Kelly said the two key priorities for the White House remained finding a solution for Dreamers and beefing up border security. Other issues, such as what to do about immigrants here under a temporary protected status, which is addressed in the bipartisan Senate proposal, should be discussed down the road, he said.
“For right now, the first bite of the apple is to solve the DACA problem issue, to have the southwest border secured and [close] some of the loopholes,” Kelly said. “If the intent is for 700,000, roughly, people who are covered by DACA to remain in the United States indefinitely as legal residents, that’s what the president of the United States wants.”
Democrats in the meeting advocated for a bipartisan House bill from Hurd and Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.) that would offer a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers and increase border security. At least 50 lawmakers, equally divided between Republicans and Democrats, have signed on in support of the bill.
“I’m more positive than ever before,” said Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.). “The way I believe forward is for Democrats to say very clearly, ‘We want to give you your border security, please give us our Dreamers.’”
But Kelly made clear Wednesday that it “fell short” of what Trump wants in an immigration deal. And Cornyn, the second-ranking Senate Republican and a member of the No. 2 group, tweeted Wednesday morning to urge lawmakers to “go back to the drawing board.”
Curbelo urged negotiators to keep their focus narrow. “I’ve always thought that the more ambitious a deal gets, the harder it is to get it done,” the Florida Republican said after the meeting with Kelly.
In the Hispanic Caucus meeting, Democrats said they implored Kelly and his aides to stop using the phrase “chain migration,” a term that minority lawmakers say is an offensive way to describe family reunification policies.
No one brought up Trump’s controversial comments last week describing certain nations as “shithole countries,” in order to ensure the meeting remained civil, members of the Hispanic Caucus said. Curbelo said the comments were addressed “very briefly” in the later meeting with Republicans.
House Republicans unveiled a short-term bill Tuesday night that would fund the government through Feb. 16, coupled with policy sweeteners — including long-term funding for a children’s health program and a delay of certain Obamacare taxes — meant to attract Democratic votes. Conservatives say Republican leaders do not have enough votes to pass the bill in the House.
But members of the Hispanic Caucus left the meeting saying they remained committed to voting against a government spending bill if there wasn’t a DACA agreement by Friday.
“We’re very clear that the clock is ticking,” said Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-N.M.), the caucus chairwoman.
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