Immigration arms race begins on Capitol Hill

Greg Nash

The Trump administration’s decision to phase out the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program is sparking a legislative arms race on Capitol Hill.

Both supporters and opponents of DACA are maneuvering for position, underscoring the difficulty lawmakers face in reaching a deal.

{mosads}To get a bill to President Trump’s desk, Republican leaders will have to balance the at-times contradictory demands of Senate Democrats and conservatives in the House.

But GOP leaders are already laying down one marker, vowing that a fix for DACA must be paired with other immigration reforms.

“If we just rubber stamp a stand-alone DREAM Act, then we’re going to have another DREAM Act that we’re going to need in 10 years from now,” Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) told Fox News Radio.

The bill that Ryan was referring to is similar to DACA: It would lift the threat of deportation from people who came to the country illegally as minors.

Democrats are pushing for a stand-alone vote on the bill, but Ryan said Congress needs to address the “cause and the effect” of illegal immigration before dealing with the nearly 800,000 people enrolled in DACA.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a member of Senate Republican leadership, has also ruled out a stand-alone vote on the DREAM Act.

The Senate Judiciary Committee will be responsible for trying to find a deal, and at first glance it would seem to be fertile ground for bipartisanship. It was expected to hold a hearing on DACA and the country’s guest worker program on Wednesday, but the meeting was postponed with the administration focused on its response to two hurricanes. 

Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), both members of the Judiciary Committee, are co-sponsors of the DREAM Act.

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), another member of the committee who is up for reelection in 2018, supports the legislation. And Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), a former chairman of the committee, authored the first version of the bill in 2001.

But those same Republicans could soon find themselves at odds with the White House.

Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders is signaling the administration thinks funding for the wall should be included in any immigration deal. 

“I don’t think the president’s been shy about the fact that he wants a wall, and certainly something he feels is an important part of a responsible immigration package,” she told reporters.

But money for the border wall is considered a nonstarter among Democrats and some Republicans. 

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has been tight-lipped about what he might include in immigration legislation. Still, he appeared to shoot down helping pay for Trump’s border wall. 

“I don’t think that’s realistic,” he told Iowa reporters in a recent conference call.

Spokesmen for Grassley didn’t respond to a request for comment about if they, or committee staff, have started discussions about a potential bill. 

Democrats, meanwhile, are threatening to attach the DREAM Act to other must-pass legislation. House Democrats, including Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), filed a discharge petition last week to try to force a vote on the DREAM Act. 

Yet while generally united on the issue, some Democrats are willing to take a harder line than others.

Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) says he and other House progressives are willing to shut down the government in December if they don’t get a deal to protect so-called Dreamers.

But Durbin said Senate Democrats weren’t yet willing to show their cards on their end-of-the-year strategy.

“We are not making a contingency, a quid pro quo,” he told “Pod Save America,” a podcast hosted by former Obama administration staffers. “We believe … that we’ll be in a better position to make that happen because look at what we’re going to face in December.”

Durbin added he was willing to talk to Republicans about a deal that would pair the DREAM Act with border security but said Democrats wouldn’t support wall money and he wouldn’t support targeting “sanctuary cities,” or cities that don’t comply with federal immigration law.

Still, when asked by The Hill if Democrats were willing to shut down the government to help DACA recipients, Durbin wouldn’t rule it out.

“I’m not going to say that at the moment. I’m going to tell you that this is a priority and we shouldn’t leave town this year without passing it.”

Durbin noted he and Cornyn have talked about border security as part of the broader immigration debate, though those discussions appeared to be preliminary. 

“I told Sen. Durbin I would be happy to talk to him about it when he wants to and when he’s ready,” Cornyn said, when asked if he had spoken to his Democratic counterpart about linking a DACA fix to border security.  

Cornyn introduced a border security and immigration enforcement bill earlier this year, but the legislation targets funding for sanctuary cities. Asked if he would be willing to drop the provision as part of the immigration talks, he joked: “I’ll negotiate with him but not with you.” 

Meanwhile, rank-and-file Republicans appear to be gravitating toward pairing a DACA fix with tougher border security measures. 

An exception is Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who is pushing for a DACA fix to be wrapped into a “comprehensive” immigration reform bill.

“That STEM — science, technology and engineering people, guest workers, a number of other provisions which makes it comprehensive. Border security, et cetera. We need to do that and so that — and make that part of it the Dreamers’ part of it,” McCain told CNN on Sunday.

But many of his GOP colleagues are wary of going big on immigration, noting such efforts have failed in the past. 

Adding another wrinkle to the debate, Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and David Perdue (R-Ga.) are pushing for consideration of their bill to curb legal immigration. Trump has endorsed that bill, but it faces opposition in both parties. 

The wild card in the immigration fight could end up being the president, who told reporters aboard Air Force One last week that “Chuck [Schumer] and Nancy [Pelosi] would like to see something happen, and so do I.” 

Conservatives are warning the White House against cutting a deal with Democrats on immigration. Former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon said it could cost Republicans their House majority.

“My fear is that with this six months down range, if we have another huge — if this goes all the way down to its logical conclusion, in February and March it will be a civil war inside the Republican Party that will be every bit as vitriolic as 2013,” Bannon said on CBS’s “60 Minutes.”

Tags Chuck Grassley Dick Durbin Jeff Flake John Cornyn John McCain Lindsey Graham Orrin Hatch Paul Ryan Tom Cotton
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