President Donald Trump is refusing to budge from his immigration framework, and he and his allies on Capitol Hill are laying the groundwork to heap the blame on Democrats if the Senate fails to reach a deal this week.
In Trump’s view, according to administration officials and GOP senators, he’s already compromised beyond where he and his staff felt comfortable by offering 1.8 million young undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship. And if Democrats want to step up this week and sink the president’s proposal, that will be on them, they said.
“It seems to me this ought to be a pretty sweet bipartisan deal to solve the problem,” Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) said of the president’s proposal. If Democrats reject it, “I think we’re looking pretty good from a PR standpoint.”
“Anything that goes left of this wouldn’t even get taken up in the House. The is not going to sign anything that doesn’t secure the four pillars,” said a senior administration official familiar with his thinking. “We took a lot of blowback. If you want the middle ground between Democrats and Republicans, this is the bill.”
But there’s no way at least nine Democrats will support the president’s proposal without major alterations, said a senior Democratic aide. The changes would have to include dropping Trump’s proposed reforms to legal immigration, such as eliminating the diversity lottery program and minimizing new restrictions to family-based migration.
Trump and many Senate Republicans are not giving up on those plans, Republican senators said.
“Why should the president move? He’s made a proposal that’s enormously generous. And Democrats are just squandering this opportunity for 1.8 million young people,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas). “To me, it’s pretty heartless.”
The standoff means the Senate’s immigration debate is likely destined for failure absent a course correction from Trump, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) or Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). Such a result would be a major blow to Dreamers facing the threat of deportation as well as the institution, where dozens of senators in both parties are searching for a bipartisan solution.
The view within the White House and among many congressional Republicans was shaped by how the president assembled his proposals. The White House and his allies on Capitol Hill first batted around the idea of legalization — without a path to citizenship — for the 690,000 young immigrants who are currently protected by DACA, according to sources familiar with the internal talks. That number would have been panned by Democrats as not generous enough, but it allowed Trump room to negotiate further.
Instead, Trump unveiled a plan that would provide a pathway to citizenship for the DACA-eligible population of 1.8 million. He took heat from immigration hard-liners who deem any path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants as “amnesty.” Trump allies said the president’s plan resulted after months of talks with both parties and was an attempt to offer a compromise bill that could pass immediately.
“The administration initially hesitated at the 1.8 [million] number … if you viewed it as an ongoing negotiation to barter, [Trump] wouldn’t have started there. But this is not like the budget deal,” which involved significant negotiations, said one Republican senator.
What instantly angered Schumer and other Democrats were the president’s proposed cuts to legal immigration, not the 1.8 million eligibility figure or the border wall money. Some Republicans were upset about it, too.
“Probably it falls short” of 60 votes, said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) of the president’s plan. “We’re not going to cut legal immigration by a third.”
The senators writing Trump’s plan into legislative text, including Cornyn and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), have included some conservative provisions that the president didn’t explicitly seek in his framework and could be dropped as an olive branch to Democrats. But those items are unlikely to sway the opposition.
And Republican leaders are not signaling they will break with the president. McConnell says he supports Trump’s plan, and Trump opposes a narrower bill sought by some senators.
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) has attempted to write a plan that mirrors some of Trump’s, but drops the cuts to legal immigration. Flake has been sparring with Trump for more than a year, making it difficult to see the president supporting his revisions.
“The president has never said that we need to cut legal immigration by half over time. That’s more a Tom Cotton-David Perdue construct,” Flake said, referring to Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.).
But Republicans have not raced to embrace Flake’s proposal, either. The GOP senators turning the president’s plan into legislation didn’t have bill text until late Tuesday; Democrats who voted to shut down the government rather than move forward without a commitment from McConnell to debate immigration have also been slow to introduce actual legislation.
Now Trump and GOP leaders argue that because Trump has moved so far away from hard-line immigration views he expressed during his presidential campaign, Democrats will shoulder all the blame if the Senate fails to pass legislation.
“He’s shown a lot of flexibility,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.). “It’s almost like people are fighting to get to no." If Democrats vote no, "they’ve let down a lot of DACA people.”
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said the White House’s current stance undercuts Trump’s deal-making reputation.
“That’s not how you make a deal. You don’t say take it or leave it,” McCaskill said.
But Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), who has met with Trump this year to talk about immigration, doubted that the president is as dug in on his plan as he’s letting on.
“I believe there’s some flexibility there. I really do,” Jones said. “The president really wants to get a deal done.”
Jones and McCaskill would not say how they would vote on the president’s plan. Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said he would oppose it because providing billions in border money for the executive branch means Congress is “not doing our job as the legislative branch.”
If Tester doesn’t support it, it’s hard to see the minimum of nine Democratic votes that Trump’s framework would need to pass the Senate. Indeed, the finger-pointing over a scenario in which no proposal can clear the Senate is already underway.
"What is so appalling and revealing is Democrats claim to care so deeply about this issue but don’t have a bill," said a White House official.
Ted Hesson and Andrew Restuccia contributed to this report.