The conversations on the Hill come as the Department of Homeland Security is working on a new list of items it wants to see in an immigration deal, according to multiple sources familiar with the discussions in Congress and the administration.
Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, who was one of a handful of red-state Democrats to meet with Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen on Tuesday, said she had told Nielsen plainly that without a promise from President Donald Trump, it was impossible to negotiate on immigration with her.
"There's things she wanted to talk about in terms of the priorities of the department in border security as we work on a bill, and I said, 'Listen: Here's the thing. I can't commit to anything until you tell me you have the support of the President,'" McCaskill said. "Because, you know, I think somebody's made the analogy of Lucy and the football. We've got to know if we're going to compromise, we've got to know that compromise will in fact have the support of the President."
McCaskill told reporters that Nielsen didn't commit that she spoke for the President but didn't say she wasn't able to, either.
"She didn't say she couldn't," McCaskill said. "She said, 'I understand what you're saying.' "
In addition to McCaskill, Nielsen met Tuesday with Sens. Jon Tester, D-Montana, Heidi Heitkamp, D-North Dakota, Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, according to an official.
DHS is working off a document that was given to some negotiators in December and was passed out in the room when two dozen lawmakers met with Trump on the issue in a partially televised meeting earlier this month, according to two senior administration officials. However, after the cameras left that meeting, the President told lawmakers he hadn't signed off on the document and instructed them to disregard it, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, told reporters
McCaskill wasn't alone in her frustration with the President's equivocation. Asked Tuesday about the White House press secretary publicly trashing a bipartisan proposal he had put together, Graham hit back.
"One thing I would say to the White House: You better start telling us what you're for rather than what you're against," the South Carolina senator said. "To my friends at the White House, you've been all over the board, you haven't been a reliable partner and the Senate's going to move."
DHS working on new guidance
Based on multiple conversations with members of Congress and their feedback and questions on various pieces of the proposals, one administration official said, the hope with the new written guidance is to clarify further what DHS thinks is necessary in a deal and why. The document is focused on the four areas that the President laid out publicly in that meeting: a solution on the expiring Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals
policy, border security, curtailing family-based migration and ending the diversity visa lottery.
Within the border security category, Nielsen has spoken publicly about a desire for more than just infrastructure and resources at the border -- and that the agency is pursuing legal overhauls to immigration enforcement that would give it greater power to remove undocumented immigrants from the country. Increasing enforcement authority has been a tough sell among Democrats.
DHS is also looking to add more depth on what the administration wants to replace DACA, which protected young undocumented immigrants who came to the US as children but which the administration is ending. The official said that would be the "next big thing" for the administration to work through.
The official also noted DHS was "the only people who've put pen to paper so far" and was happy to clarify further but wasn't interested in "negotiating against ourselves."
And the official acknowledged lawmakers' desire for greater clarity, especially from the President.
"We understand that some of these members are going to have to get out there, and we want to give them a bill that they can support and they're not going to get their legs cut out from under them," the official said. "We understand that. We're working to get there."
McCaskill argued, though, that Trump has put Nielsen in a tough spot.
"It puts her in a very difficult position to lobby for something when she can't tell me the President supports what she's lobbying for," McCaskill said, adding that Nielsen told her the secretary "clearly supported the DACA protections," but the senator reiterated her concern about where the President stood.
"Then she listed things she wanted to see in the bill," McCaskill said, "and I said, 'Some of those things I think I could work with you on. But not until I know the President will stand strong for this and make sure he lobbies the House of Representatives to pass whatever it is we end up with on a bipartisan basis in the Senate.' "