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 LankfordCOVID faith: Are your religious views 'sincerely held'? Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by AM General — Afghan evacuation still frustrates GOP senators seek to block dishonorable discharges for unvaccinated troops 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 ThuneSchumer sets Monday showdown on debt ceiling-government funding bill Congress facing shutdown, debt crisis with no plan B GOP warns McConnell won't blink on debt cliff 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 CapitoOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Senate Democrats ding Biden energy proposal Capito grills EPA nominee on '#ResistCapitalism' tweet GOP senators unveil bill designating Taliban as terrorist organization 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 TrumpGraham says he hopes that Trump runs again Trump says Stacey Abrams 'might be better than existing governor' Kemp Executive privilege fight poses hurdles for Trump 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 CornynSenate panel advances antitrust bill that eyes Google, Facebook Democrats up ante in risky debt ceiling fight Senate parliamentarian nixes Democrats' immigration plan MORE (R-Texas) and Dick DurbinDick DurbinSchumer sets Monday showdown on debt ceiling-government funding bill Democrats surprised, caught off guard by 'framework' deal Senate panel advances antitrust bill that eyes Google, Facebook MORE (D-Ill.) and Reps. Kevin McCarthyKevin McCarthyThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - Democrats argue price before policy amid scramble Fifth House Republican comes out in support of bipartisan infrastructure bill Watch live: McCarthy holds briefing with reporters MORE (R-Calif.) and Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerDemocrats press Schumer on removing Confederate statues from Capitol House Democrats set 'goal' to vote on infrastructure, social spending package next week Holding back on defensive systems for Israel could have dangerous consequences 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 RubioThe Memo: Biden's immigration problems reach crescendo in Del Rio Democrats face bleak outlook in Florida The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Dems attempt to tie government funding, Ida relief to debt limit MORE (R-Fla.), who is part of a group being led by Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsLooking to the past to secure America's clean energy future Collins to endorse LePage in Maine governor comeback bid McConnell privately urged GOP senators to oppose debt ceiling hike 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 GrassleyChuck GrassleyGrassley announces reelection bid The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - Democrats argue price before policy amid scramble Congress facing shutdown, debt crisis with no plan B 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 McConnellWe don't need platinum to solve the debt ceiling crisis The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - Democrats argue price before policy amid scramble House passes standalone bill to provide B for Israel's Iron Dome 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 RyanPaul Ryan researched narcissistic personality disorder after Trump win: book Paul Ryan says it's 'really clear' Biden won election: 'It was not rigged. It was not stolen' Democrats fret over Trump-district retirements ahead of midterms 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 KingGOP brawls over Trump on eve of first Jan. 6 hearing Pence to visit Iowa to headline event for congressman Former Steve King challenger on rural voters in GOP states: 'They hate Democrats' 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 job of shielding journalists is not finished Bottom line No documents? Hoping for legalization? Be wary of Joe Biden MORE (R-Va.)

And Rep. Mark MeadowsMark MeadowsBiden does not plan to shield Trump docs in Jan. 6 probe The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - Democrats argue price before policy amid scramble Jan. 6 panel subpoenas four ex-Trump aides Bannon, Meadows 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 GrahamTrump pushes back on book claims, says he spent 'virtually no time' discussing election with Lee, Graham The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden meets with lawmakers amid domestic agenda panic The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - House Democrats plagued by Biden agenda troubles 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.