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Fractured GOP struggles with immigration strategy

Fractured GOP struggles with immigration strategy
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Republicans are barreling toward a fight over immigration despite divisions on what the party's strategy should be.

GOP lawmakers decamped Friday from a retreat in West Virginia meant to tout unity around their 2018 agenda without finding a consensus on what to do about recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

The political cacophony comes as the Senate is expected to turn to a debate as soon as this week on the fate of the Obama-era program, which allows certain immigrants brought into the country illegally as children to work and go to school in the U.S. 

“In all likelihood no, we won’t have a single unified position on that. There will be wide varieties based on where your state is. ... We won’t have a single Republican message,” Sen. James LankfordJames Paul LankfordThe Hill's Morning Report — Split decision: Dems take House, GOP retains Senate majority Midterm vote to set cyber agenda The Hill's Morning Report — Presented by PhRMA — Trump divides Republicans ahead of midterms MORE (R-Okla.) told reporters.

A growing number of Senate Republicans are backing a scaled-back plan that would include only a DACA fix and a border security package — though the details of such an agreement would still need to be sketched out. 

Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneCongress braces for high-drama lame duck Congress should pass bill to prevent stacked taxation of digital purchases GOP lawmakers condemn attempted attacks on Democrats MORE (R-S.D.), the No. 3 Senate Republican, said the idea “may be the best we can hope for.” 

Sen. Shelley Moore CapitoShelley Wellons Moore CapitoCourt rules against Trump administration on gillnet ban rollback The Hill's Morning Report — Presented by PhRMA — Dem path to a Senate majority narrows GOP shrugs off dire study warning of global warming MORE (R-W.Va.) also predicted that an agreement that is “much smaller than what the president is going for” is where Congress will end up. 

“It’s probably going to be some sort of legal status for DACA recipients that gives them the permanence of legal status and then the border security,” Capito told MetroNews's “Talkline.”

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The scaled-back path would be a break from the “four pillars” agreed to by President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump to oust Nielsen as early as this week: report California wildfire becomes deadliest in state’s history Sinema’s Senate win cheered by LGBTQ groups MORE and a bipartisan group of lawmakers, and will likely garner backlash from conservatives and the White House.

Under the deal struck during a televised meeting last month, negotiators agreed to include a fix for DACA, border security, changes to family-based immigration and the State Department’s diversity visa lottery program in any agreement.

But senators are increasingly looking for a back-up plan as talks among the No. 2s — Sens. John CornynJohn CornynCongress braces for high-drama lame duck Trump's shortlist for attorney general takes shape Beto lost but Texas Democrats have a lot to celebrate MORE (R-Texas) and Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinDurbin: Republicans are making it 'as hard as possible' to vote GOP Rep. Rodney Davis wins reelection in Illinois Dem senators request classified briefing on Khashoggi MORE (D-Ill.) and Reps. Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyOvernight Energy: Trump, California leaders clash over fires | Trump says oil prices should be 'much lower' | Zinke criticizes media coverage | Officials consider new truck pollution rule Trump, California battle over climate and cause of fires Juan Williams: Trump's hostile takeover of the GOP MORE (R-Calif.) and Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerPelosi officially launches Speaker bid Election Countdown: Midterm fallout | What we learned | What to watch next | Trump calls out lawmakers who lost | A look at the undecided races | Vote deepens urban, rural divide | Women help deliver Dems House | McConnell thanks Trump for Senate gains Pelosi confident she will be Speaker MORE (D-Md.) — have failed to produce a deal. 

Durbin and Hoyer both told reporters last week that they didn’t believe the talks, which routinely involve White House chief of staff John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE and Director of Legislative Affairs Marc Short, have made progress.

Asked about the role of the group, Durbin laughed.

“That's a very legitimate question,” Durbin said. “So far it has not produced an agreement on any aspect of this. ... We're running out of time.”

Staffers for the four lawmakers met again on Thursday. And members negotiating on the sidelines of the leadership-backed No. 2 talks argue that, rather than trying to force a solution on the chamber, they’re funneling their ideas through Durbin and Cornyn.

“Plan A would be whatever Durbin and Cornyn and the White House can agree on. ... But if they don’t, we want to make sure there’s a Plan B that’s narrower,” said Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioJeb Bush calls for Broward County official to be removed from post Florida Dem rep: Scott is 'spinning conspiracy theories' Gillum retracts concession in Florida governor's race MORE (R-Fla.), who is part of a group being led by Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsDems vow swift action on gun reform next year Collins reiterates call for legislation to protect Mueller investigation GOP nerves on edge after Sinema takes lead over McSally MORE (R-Maine). 

The scaled-back plan is already being panned by some members of the caucus who characterize the White House’s framework, released late last month, as a “generous” offer and a sign of Trump’s willingness to compromise after taking a hard line during the 2016 campaign.

“Trump has made a very generous proposal to the young people who came with their parents, they were brought into the country when their parents entered the country in violation of our immigration laws,” Cornyn said. 

He predicted separately that any agreement would need to address each of the “four pillars,” adding: “We really need a counterproposal by the Democrats, which we haven’t gotten yet.”

Lankford also said he’s “not interested in a skinny version on immigration.” Sen. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyOn The Money: Trump says he won't give up tax returns | Likely Dem chair vows to subpoena | Stocks rally on Dem House takeover | Tough midterm for many GOP tax writers Feinstein: Acting AG must pledge to Senate he won't interfere with Mueller Grassley to make chairmanship decision after meeting with colleagues next week MORE (R-Iowa), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, questioned if Democrats just want to use the DACA fight as “a campaign issue.” 

The divisions among Senate Republicans come as the White House doubles down on its own framework, despite running into widespread opposition from both Democrats and some Republicans who are wary of cuts to legal immigration. 

Trump touted his plan, saying it’s a “strong bill, but it’s a very fair bill.”

“If the Democrats choose to filibuster a framework that includes a generous path to citizenship or something that is not fair, we are not going to approve it,” he said. 

Trump added in a tweet that Democrats “just aren’t calling” on DACA and “we have a great chance to make a deal or, blame the Dems!” 

Many GOP lawmakers are wary of taking up an immigration bill unless it’s backed by Trump, given that the issue is a political lightning rod among the party’s base. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellPress: Trumpism takes a thumping The Hill's 12:30 Report — Sponsored by Delta Air Lines — Trump says Florida races should be called for GOP | Latest on California wildfires | Congress set for dramatic lame duck Congress braces for high-drama lame duck MORE (R-Ky.) hasn’t tipped his hand on what legislation he could bring up as soon as this week to start the chamber’s immigration fight. 

“What I said ... was if the immigration issue was not resolved inside the global discussion … I am perfectly happy provided the government is still open on Feb. 8 to go to the subject and to treat it in a fair way,” he said during a joint press conference with Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanRepublicans must learn from the election mistake on immigration Congress braces for high-drama lame duck Without new Democratic message, Donald Trump is the 2020 favorite MORE (R-Wis.). 

McConnell added that he would not “try to tilt the playing field in anybody’s direction and we’ll see who can get to 60 votes.” 

The Senate’s 60-vote requirement, which will force the bill to be bipartisan, puts the chamber at odds with the House. There, immigration hard-liners including Rep. Steve KingSteven (Steve) Arnold King Conservative magazine posts recording of King using derogatory language against immigrants How Steve King turned his back on states’ rights for Big Ag Steve King accuses Weekly Standard of trying to ‘advance a Leftist agenda’ MORE (R-Iowa) have labeled the president’s proposal as amnesty. The framework included a path to citizenship for up 1.8 million immigrants in exchange for tens of billions for the border wall and other changes to legal immigration. 

House conservatives, separately, say any narrow plan coming from the Senate is dead in their chamber, where leadership is under pressure to take up a wide-ranging bill from Rep. Bob GoodlatteRobert (Bob) William GoodlatteThe truth about illegal voting Dems race to protect Mueller probe House Dems hold emergency conference call on Sessions ouster MORE (R-Va.)

And Rep. Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsConservative groups call for new slate of House GOP leaders House GOP fight begins: Jordan challenges McCarthy Trump Jr. refers to ‘tired old’ Pelosi in campaign ad MORE (R-N.C.), the chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, is warning he could demand an agreement in order to help put up the votes to keep the government funded past Feb. 8.

“If we have a commitment on what we’re going to do on immigration, that moves things along,” he said on the sidelines of the party’s retreat, while also pointing to a demand for more defense spending.

GOP leadership has privately expressed skepticism that the Goodlatte bill has the 218 votes needed to pass. McCarthy pointed to the No. 2 talks as the group most likely to be able to get a deal to Trump’s desk. 

“If something comes out of this group, it's more likely it's law,” he said, compared to “if they want something to just come out of the Senate, and then we can do something in the House and then we go to conference.”

But some Senate Republicans are pushing forward with the idea that the best way to win over the House would be to pass a bill with the support of at least 70 senators.

“I think if the Senate could pass a bill that could get somewhere around 70 votes and the president got behind it, then it would become law,” Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamElection Countdown: Florida braces for volatile recount | Counties race to finish machine recount | Trump ramps up attacks | Abrams files new lawsuit in Georgia | 2020 to be new headache for Schumer | Why California counts its ballots so slowly Trump, California battle over climate and cause of fires Schumer’s headaches to multiply in next Congress MORE (R-S.C.) told radio host Michael Medved. 

Capito also predicted that the framework put out by the White House was a “marker” and not the end of negotiations. 

“[Trump] knows that’s not going to be the bill that Mitch McConnell puts up on the floor,” she said. “It’s going to more of a consensus kind of bill, I think.”

Scott Wong contributed.