On Wednesday, the White House signaled it had an immigration framework
Lawmakers have been prepared to keep negotiating without President Donald Trump
Even before the shutdown, patience with the White House was wearing thin
Republicans have waited on one man – President Donald Trump – to lead on immigration.
Senate Republicans are not waiting anymore.
After a three-day government shutdown, mixed messages from multiple White House meetings and an overall lack of clarity on what exactly Trump is demanding for an immigration deal, Senate Republicans are growing increasingly bullish that if they want to do something on immigration, they’ll have to make the first move.
But on Wednesday, the White House signaled it was planning to engage. The White House announced it would release a broad policy framework Monday that could be used as the template for any potential Senate deal. Now, lawmakers will have to decide if the White House’s vision will be one they share.
“That’s good. That’s excellent,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, said when informed of the White House’s announcement. “What you’d do is we would have their input, which would be wonderful, and see how their input matches up with where a lot of people on both sides of the aisle are. You’re not going to get a bill through the United States Senate without 60 votes.”
To end the shutdown, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pledged earlier this week he’d move on immigration next month adding additional pressure for members to get a deal.
“The problem is the White House just hasn’t been clear,” said Sen. Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona, before the White House announcement. “They’ve been kind of all over the map, frankly. The significance of (McConnell’s) commitment is we aren’t waiting for the White House anymore.”
Even if Republicans and Democrats in the Senate – newly emboldened to work together after a government shutdown – can find a resolution, there’s no guarantee the President would embrace their plan. Nor is there any assurance the House – which has long distrusted the Senate on immigration – would take it up and debate it. The White House’s framework injects more uncertainty into the viability of members to get a deal. The Department of Homeland Security is also looking to unveil a more specific plan of what would be accepted on a solution to the expiring Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, according to multiple sources familiar with the discussions in Congress and the administration.
“I think the President’s in a good spot in terms of understanding what deal will work,” Graham told reporters during the shutdown. “You just got to commit to it. Somebody’s got to lead. The White House staff has been pretty unreliable, the House is locked down so I think the Senate is the best body to lead the country to a result.”
Even before the shutdown, patience with the White House was wearing thin. McConnell took to the mics last week to declare “I’m looking for something that President Trump supports. And he’s not yet indicated what measure he’s willing to sign.”
“As soon as we figure out what he is for, then I would be convinced that we were not just spinning our wheels going to this issue on the floor, but actually dealing with a bill that has a chance to become law and therefore solve the problem,” McConnell said.
John Thune, the GOP Senate’s No. 3, told CNN that Trump needed “to figure out what he wants, what he’ll sign.”
“The particulars do seem to change a little bit day to day,” Thune said.
On Wednesday, roughly 40 bipartisan lawmakers – many who helped negotiate the end of the government shutdown – met to try to find a way forward on immigration. The group invited Republican Whip John Cornyn, a Texas member of the Senate’s Judiciary Committee, to discuss the issue. The group’s intention was to create the kind of widespread congressional buy-in that would make it impossible for Trump not to back their plan.
Brokering a deal in the Senate is just the first step. Even if a diverse coalition could come to an agreement (which some doubt), in the House, Republican lawmakers will be looking for Trump’s approval. Aside from the fact that Trump would have to eventually sign legislation, Republicans in the House view Trump as providing a level of political cover.
What if Trump changes his mind?
The problem for the House is Trump could change his mind on an issue as volatile as immigration.
It’s the issue that helped a little-known economics professor unseat the sitting House majority leader in 2014 and elevated Trump just two years later to become the Republican presidential nominee in a primary crowded with more experienced politicians.
“Immigration for a lot of people is a tough issue,” Sen. Bob Corker, a Republican from Tennessee, told CNN last week. “I voted for the 2013 bill, so I’d like to see us do immigration reform and do it right, but I think because it’s such a grinder of an issue, there are numbers of people who want to know if the President’s going to sign it before they go through the grinder.”
House Republicans are cognizant that getting on the wrong side of talk radio and conservative commentators can cost them politically. And without Trump’s leadership, it may be too risky for them to touch.
Getting Trump on board with an idea and then ensuring he sticks with his position has been a herculean lift on health care, tax reform and even a key government spying program like the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Getting him to agree to give hundreds of thousands of DACA recipients a path to citizenship and then stand firm as criticism mounts that he’s caving on an essential plank of his campaign? Members of Congress acknowledge that’s a long shot even as they recognize in the same breath it’s essential to preserving their majority.
“If he shifts or if he doesn’t have a particular plan that he’s endorsing, I think that’s where it gets problematic,” one Republican senator told CNN.
Lawmakers see reasons for optimism
There had been some optimism just over two weeks ago that Trump was more flexible on immigration than his “bad hombre” rhetoric had indicated on the campaign trail. For nearly an hour, the President entertained cameras in a bipartisan meeting where Trump pronounced that his immigration plan would be “a bill of love.”
Trump told the room he’d sign any bipartisan deal they’d send him. But two days later, the tone shifted. Trump rejected the only bipartisan immigration plan on the table (albeit one that didn’t have widespread support in the conference). And Republicans were reading reports that Trump made vulgar comments about the African countries where immigrants come from.
“It causes you to doubt that much more the validity of so much that comes out of the White House or their ability to stand in one spot for more than three hours on a given issue,” one Republican congressman said about the White House meeting.
For now, senators say, they will take a look at what Trump has to offer, and hope it can fill in some of the gaps.
“It’s kinda nice to see them putting out some sort of document,” said Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the chairman of the Senate’s Judiciary Committee. “It might kind of close gaps among various factions in the Senate. But I won’t know until I see it. But if it’s within legalization of DACA, border security, and chain migration, and diversity visas, then I’d say they’re doing what was kind of agreed to in a bicameral, bipartisan way on January 9.”
CNN’s Tal Kopan contributed to this report.