Key senator floats new compromise for immigration talks

Key senator floats new compromise for immigration talks
© Greg Nash

A key Republican senator is floating a new proposal to essentially codify President Obama’s 2012 executive order creating the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in order to break a standoff with Democrats over immigration.

The idea, floated by Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones Portman13 GOP senators ask administration to pause separation of immigrant families Lawmakers, businesses await guidance on tax law Harvard biz school honors Wilbur Ross MORE (R-Ohio) in private conversations with Republican and Democratic senators, would give legal status to immigrants who entered the country illegally as children in exchange for stronger border security.

It would stop short of creating a path to citizenship for the immigrants known as "Dreamers" and help deliver on President TrumpDonald John TrumpConservatives express concern over House GOP immigration bill Poll: McSally holds 14-point lead in Arizona GOP Senate primary Trump defends Nielsen amid criticism over family separations MORE’s promise to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. It also would cut out changes to two other legal immigration programs that have been part of a White House framework proposal.

“I just have been making the point that for those of us who want to get something done, we haven’t looked at some sort of skinnied-down version” of immigration reform, said Portman, a former House member and official in the George W. Bush administration who is seen as a dealmaker.

“Focus on what’s doable,” he added. “I’ve talked to Democrats and Republicans.”

Portman’s proposal is picking up support among Senate Republicans who want to sidestep a fight with the House and the party’s conservative base over giving Dreamers a 10- or 12-year path to citizenship.

“I’m a fan of that idea,” Senate Republican Conference Chairman John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneStop labeling babies as 'born addicted' — it stigmatizes them and is inaccurate Trump plan to claw back billion in spending in peril McConnell: Mueller 'ought to wrap it up' MORE (S.D.) said of Portman’s proposal. “It’s doable.”

“It’s a symmetrical deal where both sides get something they want,” he added, noting that it would avoid a messy internal fight over granting Dreamers a path to citizenship.

Whether it would be enough for conservatives in the House, however, is another question.

House conservatives have rallied around legislation drafted by Rep. Bob GoodlatteRobert (Bob) William GoodlatteConservatives express concern over House GOP immigration bill Republicans tear into IG finding on Clinton probe Trump vows to stand with House GOP '1,000 percent' on immigration MORE (R-Va.) that aims to reduce legal immigration by 25 percent. Goodlatte's bill includes tougher requirements for verifying workers and would crack down on so-called sanctuary cities, which do not cooperate with federal immigration enforcement. It does not provide a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers or the more narrow group of DACA recipients.

Portman has been engaged in informal discussions with colleagues in recent days, but he is not a member of the Republican group negotiating immigration reform with the Democratic leadership nor with the bipartisan centrist group that has met recently in Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsActress Marcia Gay Harden urges Congress to boost Alzheimer's funding 13 GOP senators ask administration to pause separation of immigrant families Trump plan to claw back billion in spending in peril MORE’s (R-Maine) office.

Trump rescinded DACA in September and gave Congress a March 5 deadline to replace it. With the deadline fast approaching, the two parties are still far apart on a deal to protect Dreamers from deportation.  

As a result, some aides and lawmakers for more than a week have been suggesting the answer is to scale back the ambition for a deal.

“The idea of a broader immigration deal getting done in the next few weeks seems unlikely. It would make sense to have a backstop that focuses on codifying DACA in exchange for some real border security measures,” said a senior Republican aide.

The Trump administration last week unveiled a four-point proposal that would give Dreamers a 10- to-12-year path to citizenship, create a $25 billion trust fund to strengthen border security, limit the number of green cards available to the relatives of U.S. citizens and end the diversity visa lottery.

Conservatives are already bashing Trump’s plan as amnesty, and some Republicans on the Hill are worried it could give ammo to challengers ahead of this year’s GOP primaries.

“That’s a problem,” said one Republican senator who requested anonymity, referring to criticism from the right.

The lawmaker endorsed Portman’s proposal as a way to help Dreamers and avoid a fight with the party base ahead of the midterm elections

Meanwhile, Democrats have rejected Trump’s proposal as a non-starter.

“It’s not serious,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.).

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerOvernight Health Care — Presented by the Association of American Medical Colleges — Trump officials move to expand non-ObamaCare health plans | 'Zero tolerance' policy stirs fears in health community | New ObamaCare repeal plan Selling government assets would be a responsible move in infrastructure deal Ignore the naysayers trying to disrupt US diplomacy with North Korea MORE (D-N.Y.) urged Democratic colleagues at a lunch meeting Tuesday afternoon not to support Trump’s four-point plan, according to a Democrat who attended the meeting.

Instead, Schumer urged Democrats to back the one-for-one swap of border security in exchange for protecting Dreamers from deportation, the source said.

Schumer also raised doubts in the meeting over whether Trump would be able to sell an immigration deal to what he called the GOP’s “hard right,” according to the source.

Some Senate Democrats are urging their colleagues not to be too eager to strike what could turn out to be a bad deal to protect Dreamers.

They say Trump created the crisis by rescinding DACA and it’s not up to Democrats to make concessions.

Some Democrats think it might make more sense to negotiate an immigration deal next year, when they might have control of the House and perhaps the Senate as well.

“I’ve been worried about that all along. As we get closer to the midterms, they’ll just say, ‘We’ll take our ball and go home, wait and get a better deal later,’ ” said Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakePoll: McSally holds 14-point lead in Arizona GOP Senate primary GOP senators introduce bill to prevent family separations at border McCain, Coons: Trump should withdraw controversial refugee nominee MORE (R-Ariz.), who has been involved in immigration talks.

Senate GOP leaders on Tuesday noted that the League of United Latin American Citizens, a pro-immigrant advocacy group, has endorsed Trump’s proposal while Democrats are keeping their distance.

Senate Republican Whip John CornynJohn CornynGOP senators introduce bill to prevent family separations at border Senate GOP tries to defuse Trump border crisis Dem plays audio from child detention center on Senate floor MORE (Texas), who is leading immigration talks for Republicans, passed out the letter from group at a lunch meeting on Tuesday.

“I am a little frustrated by the fact that our Democratic colleagues have not responded to the president’s proposal with anything concrete,” he said.

But Cornyn isn’t ready to sign on to a pared-down proposal to reestablish DACA by granting illegal immigrants who came to the country as children legal status but not a path to citizenship in exchange for border security.

He questioned whether it could truly serve as a permanent solution.

“I welcome all ideas, but a temporary proposal will end us right back where we are at some point in the future,” he said. “I don’t know what the length of that would be. A year or two years or three years?

“I think the president has been very generous in his offer to provide a potential pathway to citizenship, but we’ll have to stop the source of the inflow by enhancing border security."