President Donald Trump’s inaugural State of the Union on Tuesday could offer an opportunity for the first-term leader to unify Congress behind a plan to protect the undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers.
Instead, the immigration blueprint his administration laid out days before the highly anticipated address is splintering Congress in all directions, with conservatives complaining it provides amnesty for immigrants who lack legal status and Democrats recoiling from Trump’s pitch to restrict legal, family-based immigration.
Trump plans to put the weight of the bully pulpit behind his immigration proposal on Tuesday night and attempt to rally lawmakers around his plan, but some Republicans already think the president’s wish list is too broad to find agreement in Congress. An ever-widening group of senators is still trying to forge ahead with their own legislative ideas.
Some senators have urged Trump to help them move toward a deal by striking a compassionate tone during his speech.
“I truly, sincerely think that he has compassion and empathy, and he wants to make sure children that only know this country as their home gets security,” Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) told POLITICO. “I think for people to be able to see his compassion he has for these children would be good.”
Added Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.): “If he made statements like we’ve heard at some other points, like ‘with heart’ and ‘bill of love,’ that kind of thing is helpful.”
Trump’s plan would provide a pathway to citizenship to about 1.8 million immigrants who came to the United States as children and who entered the country or stayed illegally. That would be in exchange for policies to clamp down on immigration, including creating a $25 billion fund for a border wall system, nixing the diversity visa lottery — which is meant to encourage immigration from countries where few people come to the United States — and fundamentally altering family-based immigration laws by allowing immigrants to sponsor only spouses and minor children, not other relatives, for visas.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called the plan a “framework for guidance” rather than explicitly endorsing the details. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) didn’t appear enthused about Trump’s legal migration proposals on Sunday, telling ABC’s “This Week” that “chain migration and cutting legal immigration in half, those would be very problematic areas.” And Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), reflecting most of his caucus, has already panned the White House proposal — a strong signal that the plan is dead on arrival in that chamber.
In the House, GOP leaders are more comfortable with Trump’s blueprint and in fact welcomed it. Senior Republicans and staff are relieved at what they view as the White House’s slow walk toward the middle, and they think it will help corral their more conservative conference, which was itching to push an immigration bill further to the right.
“It’s a sign that shows he’s serious about solving this problem,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said on “Meet the Press” Sunday. “I think that whatever we do is not going to pass with one party or the other…That [proposal] has a lot of merit toward solving the problem.”
House conservatives, however, are of a different mindset. In recent weeks, they have rallied around a bill written by immigration hawk Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) that does not give Dreamers a pathway to citizenship and limits the pool of potential beneficiaries to the about 800,000 people who received protections under the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
In addition to funding the border wall and curbing family migration, as the White House plan proposes, the Goodlatte bill would force all employers to verify the legal status of their employees — a controversial matter for Democrats and even moderate Republicans.
Speaker Paul Ryan has refused to promise to put the bill on the floor — in part because his whip team thinks it’s so far right that it couldn’t even pass the House. But the White House plan enables Ryan to encourage his conference to narrow their demands — and puts the president’s backing behind the idea that Dreamers should have the opportunity to become citizens eventually.
“I appreciate the president putting this plan forward and narrowing what he would like to see in a bipartisan solution to this issue,” centrist Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas) said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” Sunday. “Because the more things you add, you start creating coalitions of opposition. And so let’s keep this narrow.”
Another moderate Republican source said of the White House plan: “It’s much better than the Goodlatte bill.”
But many House conservatives appear less convinced by Trump’s proposal, finding it too accommodating to Democrats.
“[I]llegals have no right to be here & have ALL violated our laws,” tweeted Rep. Steve King, one of the most vocal anti-immigration lawmakers in the House. “This #Amnesty deal negotiates away American Sovereignty.”
Goodlatte also refused through a spokeswoman to weigh in on the White House plan.
Trump has pitched his plan as a middle-of-the-road proposal. It would give DACA recipients more permanent status in the United States than the current program, which provides protection from deportation and work permits. The pathway to citizenship Trump proposed is similar to an idea favored by a bipartisan group of six senators.
“I have offered DACA a wonderful deal, including a doubling in the number of recipients & a twelve year pathway to citizenship, for two reasons: (1) Because the Republicans want to fix a long time terrible problem. (2) To show that Democrats do not want to solve DACA, only use it!” Trump tweeted Sunday.
While rank-and-file senators have held weeks of talks about an immigration deal, South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the third-ranking Senate GOP leader, said ongoing discussions between leadership and White House officials “probably provide the best path to something to sign and pass the House.”
“Next week could be a very pivotal point in time where we start looking at a specific baseline bill and build on it,” Thune said.
Despite the reams of proposals sent to Congress from the White House outlining the administration’s vision on immigration policy, lawmakers still hope Trump’s State of the Union ends up giving lawmakers more clarity on just what kind of bill the president would ultimately sign into law.
“I would just ask that ‘Tuesday Trump’ come to the State of the Union,” said Graham, referring to the president’s demeanor during a White House meeting a few Tuesdays ago, when he vowed to sign any agreement Congress sent him. “If ‘Tuesday Trump’ comes to the State of the Union and lays out a vision like he has in the past, we’re in good shape.”
Burgess Everett contributed to this report.
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