President Donald Trump’s “shithole” remarks have upended sensitive bipartisan talks over immigration and further raised the threat of a government shutdown when funding runs out Jan. 19.
Even as Trump and senior White House officials scrambled to deal with the furor over his derogatory comments — which senators said came Thursday during a closed-door meeting in the Oval Office — high-level negotiations over the fate of hundreds of thousands of Dreamers bogged down on Capitol Hill on Friday.
Aides for Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), along with officials from the Department of Homeland Security, took a hard line in the latest discussions with their Democratic counterparts, calling for an end to “sanctuary cities” and raising other enforcement issues that Democrats reject as outside the scope of a potential deal to salvage the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
In response, staffers Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) made clear they will not agree to any changes to the current visa diversity program. That’s the program that had drawn Trump’s ire for allowing in too many immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador and African countries, instead of countries like Norway.
At one point in Friday’s session, an aide to Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) asked the DHS officials if they were representing the White House in these discussions and were told “no,” surprising aides from both parties. All present knew that Republicans were never going to sign onto a deal without blessing from the White House, and were concerned the White House wasn’t represented in the discussions.
It’s all part of a complex dance made even more difficult by Trump’s inflammatory remarks.
The top two Democratic negotiators on immigration — Durbin and Hoyer — decried Trump’s comments as racist and ignorant. Several House Democrats announced they will offer a resolution to censure Trump on the floor next week.
“My thought that we might get a bipartisan agreement approved by the White House died yesterday,” Durbin told reporters on Friday. “We have to do this and show leadership in Congress to solve this important challenge.”
Durbin, Graham and four other senators have reached a bipartisan deal that gives Dreamers a path to citizenship while also funding some of Trump’s border wall between the United States and Mexico.
The proposal is favored by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and other top Senate Democrats, and it’s the only one that can come close to garnering 60 votes in the Senate, Democrats say.
Without a solution for Dreamers, Democrats won’t agree to any deal to raise budget caps that both parties say they need.
Funding for federal agencies runs out on Jan. 19, and both McCarthy and Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) have already stated that they will move a short-term spending bill next week to avoid a shutdown. It’s not clear if House Republicans can pass such a bill on their own — as Democrats won’t help them without a Dreamers agreement in hand — or how Senate Democrats would respond.
Yet the White House has already rejected the bipartisan senators’ agreement, and House Republicans are opposed as well. GOP leaders prefer a deal to come from the “Two Group” — the name given to the discussion among party whips — although that group doesn’t look like it is going to reach consensus anytime soon, if it ever does.
The "Two Group" talks will continue next week, aides in both parties said.
"Progress was made today. We look forward to continuing the conversations next week," said Matt Sparks, McCarthy’s communications director.
Democrats’ distaste for negotiating with the president could cause a major problem for Republicans, however. GOP leaders have said all along that Trump must strike any DACA deal to shield them from blowback from the conservative base and immigration hardliners.
It was in that vein that the Graham staffer pressed several DHS officials who attended the Friday meeting whether they spoke for the White House on DACA decisions. For weeks, Hill Republicans have privately expressed frustration at the lack of guidance from the White House on what Trump would or wouldn’t sign.
The Graham staffer, according to two sources familiar with the talks, asked that a White House official be present next time to help move negotiations along. DHS officials agreed.
Few in the meeting directly mentioned Trump’s disparaging comments, though they seemed to weigh down the talks, sources familiar with the discussions said. Much of the session centered on each leadership office going through a laundry list of items they needed or would not accept in a DACA deal. Sources said there was “no progress.”
At one point, Hoyer’s staff noted how the “shithole” remark would make it difficult for any DACA agreement to pass muster with House Democrats, who are furious with Trump. Democrats instead doubled down on their original insistence that only border security — not wider immigration policy changes — be on the table.
In next week’s discussions, Hoyer’s office is likely to include representatives from the minority groups caucus: the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Black Caucus, Asian Pacific American Caucus.
Cornyn’s aides, meanwhile, pushed back on the call for a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers, which is part of the Graham-Durbin proposal.
“Unless the ices gets broken somehow, there is no ‘ there there,’” said one person familiar with the meeting. "I mean, there is a private acknowledgment around the table that this is the only group that could maybe get to a deal that’s blessed by leadership. But there’s an acknowledgement that it’s highly unlikely if not impossible that they could reach a deal.”
The source added: “My candid assessment is that there is acknowledgement that it’s not going anywhere, but nobody wants to be the person to walk away.”
Even as the No. 2 leaders continue negotiations, some influential House Democrats say they’re skeptical the talks are anything more than a ruse by Republicans to delay a deal past the Jan. 19 government funding deadline. Many GOP lawmakers are loath to directly tie immigration changes to a spending bill and note Trump gave lawmakers until March before completely eliminating DACA.
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus held a members-only call on Friday afternoon where lawmakers were told to evaluate the Senate proposal. Staffers from the CHC also met with staff in Ryan’s office Friday, according to two sources. The caucus is expected to hold another call Saturday morning to discuss the Senate plan.
The CHC has notably not taken a public position on the Graham-Durbin proposal, even as the two other minority groups — the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus — have come out against proposed changes to the diversity visa lottery and family-based migration.
It’s not that the CHC is supportive of those changes. But some House Democrats say privately they see the Graham-Durbin plan as the only viable vehicle to protect Dreamers, even if it contains provisions that would otherwise be unacceptable if a DACA deal wasn’t on the table.
While the CHC has yet to take a formal position, members of the group left their weekly meeting on Thursday complaining that they had been completely shut out of Senate negotiations.
“We’re like you, we’re trying to figure out what’s going on and where are things headed,” Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) told reporters. “But we don’t have an idea right now.”