White House kicks DACA fight back to Congress
White House chief of staff John Kelly huddled with lawmakers from both parties on Wednesday in an effort to kick-start the teetering talks surrounding the fate of the “Dreamers.”
But if the lawmakers were hoping for the Trump administration to take the reins of the debate and press Congress to move quickly to address the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, they were left disappointed.
Kelly — staging back-to-back meetings in the Capitol, first with Democrats in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) and then with Republican immigration reformers — said President Trump wants a deal securing legal protections for the roughly 700,000 young immigrants benefiting from DACA.
“That’s a given,” he told reporters in the Capitol.
But Kelly also suggested the White House will largely play an advisory role, rather than steering the debate.
“This is primarily a legislative process that the White House is involved in,” Kelly said.
“I know they’re talking, and that’s the beginning of the process,” he added, referring to the ongoing bipartisan negotiations.
“When they need us to come in and talk to them, we’ll do that.”
Kelly’s hands-off approach was not what the members of the Hispanic Caucus expected. Several in the group, including Chairwoman Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-N.M.), said they were disappointed that Kelly did not present a White House DACA proposal to guide the process.
“He didn’t talk to us about the process,” she said. “He really deferred about that.”
Still, the Democrats said they’re hoping Kelly and other administration officials will press Republican leaders on Capitol Hill to act quickly on DACA. Few issues divide the GOP like immigration does, and there’s a growing sense among reform advocates in both parties that Republican leaders will act on DACA only with a concerted push from the White House.
“[Kelly] recognizes that that process depends on the leadership in the House and the Senate — they have the unique power here,” said Lujan Grisham. “And we said: We need the White House to engage [and] tell the leadership that they need to give us votes on these bipartisan compromises.”
Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), another CHC member who participated in the meeting, said he wasn’t holding his breath for such a pressure campaign to arrive.
“My optimism isn’t there because I didn’t feel that the general is effectively giving his voice or leadership in the White House to move this forward,” Grijalva said.
Some Democrats were startled to find that Kelly was unfamiliar with some of the leading DACA proposals floating around Capitol Hill, particularly a bill from Reps. Will Hurd (R-Texas) and Peter Aguilar (D-Calif.) coupling DACA protections with tougher border security. Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) said he was “blown away” that Democrats had to describe the bill to Kelly. And others piled on.
“I was surprised that he didn’t even know what the Hurd-Aguilar bill was,” said Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), head of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.
Chu and Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), the Democratic whip, were the only non-CHC lawmakers in the Democratic meeting.
Wednesday’s meeting came as Republican leaders are scrambling to wrangle the votes to finance the government before funding runs out on midnight Friday. Almost every Democrat is planning to oppose the Republicans’ short-term spending patch, known as a continuing resolution (CR), to protest the absence of a DACA fix, putting pressure on Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to rally the Republican votes to prevent a shutdown.
Ryan and other GOP leaders have said they want to protect those in DACA, an Obama-era program which Trump dismantled last year, giving Congress until March 5 to adopt a fix. But they’ve shown little urgency in moving a bill before that deadline. And a recent decision by a federal judge in California blocking Trump’s move to end DACA has only reduced the pressure on Congress to act, according to some GOP leaders.
“There is no deadline on DACA,” Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), the majority leader, said Tuesday.
McCarthy is among the bipartisan group of four deputy leaders working behind closed doors to seal a deal on DACA, a group that also includes Hoyer and Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).
The DACA talks were upended last week when Trump disparaged immigrants from a host of developing-world nations, wondering aloud why the United States would welcome people from “shithole countries” like those in Africa.
Speaking at length with reporters Wednesday, Kelly did not mention the controversy. But it came up in the meeting between the Republicans and Trump’s chief of staff, according to Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), who attended.
“There was an acknowledgment that there was a lot of foul language used at that meeting — by more than one person,” Curbelo said.
Also participating in the Republican meeting were Reps. Hurd, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.).
Kelly defended Trump’s position, including the president’s opposition to a deal negotiated by Durbin and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) that would combine the DACA protections with border security and curbs to family migration and diversity visas. Kelly said the bill didn’t go far enough to prevent another DACA situation years into the future, and also wasn’t vetted by enough lawmakers to win Trump’s support.
“It did not include all of the senators that had been involved in the discussions about DACA, and certainly did not involve the House,” he said. “[But] I will say this: The president that I work for wants 700,000 or so DACA recipients … to have a way to stay in the United States legally.”
“He wants that.”
Kelly’s visit prompted new hope among Republican immigration reformers that the president has turned a corner and will act as a catalyst toward a DACA deal.
Curbelo said “the administration is more committed than ever” to getting an agreement secured.
“The more ambitious we get, the more likely it is that we fail. So we have to keep that in mind,” Curbelo warned. “[But] what I was looking for is that firm commitment to make sure all of the DACA population — at least — is taken care of. That’s there. The administration considers this one of its goals, which is very encouraging.”
Diaz-Balart echoed that optimism, saying it’s “undeniable that the president and the administration wants to solve the DACA issue.”
“This is not a new issue,” he said. “You don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”
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