Senators warm to immigration deal as shutdown solution

Lawmakers are opening the door to reviving deeply polarizing immigration negotiations as they search for a way out of the partial government shutdown, which hit the two-week mark on Friday.

An agreement to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws has eluded Congress for years, underscoring the difficult path awaiting lawmakers and the White House if they decide to broaden the divisive border wall fight.

But with President TrumpDonald John TrumpFormer Joint Chiefs chairman: 'The last thing in the world we need right now is a war with Iran' Pence: 'We're not convinced' downing of drone was 'authorized at the highest levels' Trump: Bolton would take on the whole world at one time MORE and congressional Democrats at a stalemate with no signs of reaching an agreement to reopen roughly 25 percent of the government, making immigration reform part of the negotiations is gaining traction among senators on both sides of the aisle who are eager for a way out of the shutdown.

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“It’s come back to life again,” said Sen. Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyCongress unlikely to reach deal on Trump border bill before break GOP lawmakers want Mulvaney sidelined in budget talks McConnell vows to 'vigorously' oppose Moore's Senate bid MORE (R-Ala.), the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, of a potential immigration deal. “We’ll see if it has legs.”

There’s been no formal agreement among leadership or the White House to insert an immigration overhaul into the shutdown talks, where funding for Trump’s proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border is the key sticking point.

Immigration reform was brought up during Wednesday’s closed-door meeting at the White House that included Trump, congressional leaders and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen NielsenKirstjen Michele NielsenElection security bills face GOP buzzsaw Five memorable moments from Sarah Sanders at the White House Trump admin program sends asylum-seekers to await claims in Mexico, despite fears of violence: report MORE.

Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinCongress unlikely to reach deal on Trump border bill before break Democrats want White House hopefuls to cool it on Biden attacks Overnight Health Care: Trump officials defend changes to family planning program | Senators unveil bipartisan package on health costs | Democrats pass T spending bill with HHS funds MORE (D-Ill.), who attended the meeting, said the topic was broached, but he appeared wary of wading into negotiations on immigration without Trump's clear support.

“I’ll tell ya, it’s such a bitter experience a year ago. And I told the president that I had a bitter experience,” Durbin told The Hill, referring to the White House meeting. “We’re not going to jump back in that until there’s a pretty clear public commitment from the president.”

The politics surrounding immigration could create more obstacles to resolving the shutdown. The issue has becoming a political lightning rod among the base in both parties.

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Democratic leadership would face intense pressure from a newly muscular progressive wing to take a hard line, and Trump has shown he is susceptible to conservative criticism on immigration, which he has used as leverage to fire up his own supporters.

Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntGOP senators divided over approach to election security The Hill's Morning Report — US strikes approved against Iran pulled back Democrats detail new strategy to pressure McConnell on election security bills MORE (Mo.), a member of GOP leadership, said that while he hasn’t been involved in overall immigration discussions, expanding the scope of negotiations could be one way to break the logjam.

“You know, sometimes the best way to solve a problem is to make it bigger, and that’s always one of the options here,” he said.

With no progress on an agreement for border funding — Trump appeared to reject a $2.5 billion deal pitched by officials in his own administration — a growing number of rank-and-file members are calling for immigration to be linked to the border wall talks.

Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinRepublicans, Trump Jr. signal support for embattled West Virginia governor Critics say Interior's top lawyer came 'close to perjury' during Hill testimony The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by MAPRx — Trump takes heat for remarks on help from foreign governments MORE (D-W.Va.) proposed reviving a 2013 immigration bill during a closed-door Democratic leadership meeting this week. That bill, which passed the Democratic-led Senate but died in the GOP-controlled House, included a pathway to citizenship for the broader undocumented immigrant population while also including roughly $40 billion for border security.

Sen. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderGOP lawmakers want Mulvaney sidelined in budget talks Horse abuse for ribbons and prizes has to stop Overnight Health Care: Trump officials defend changes to family planning program | Senators unveil bipartisan package on health costs | Democrats pass T spending bill with HHS funds MORE (R-Tenn.) is urging Trump to strike a deal on comprehensive immigration reform, arguing it could be his “Nixon to China” moment and bring an end to the partial government shutdown.

“Why would he not agree to such a thing?” Alexander said. “We could go small, we could go a little bigger … but I’d like to see the president say, ‘OK, we’ve got a new Congress. We’ve got divided government. I’m the president who can actually make this happen.’”

Other lawmakers are raising the prospect of a smaller deal that would focus on immigrants who were brought into the United States illegally when they were children.

One option getting attention from lawmakers would be to include a fix for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients. Lawmakers in both parties say they are sympathetic to immigrants who entered the country illegally as children, but they’ve punted the issue as the fate of the Obama-era program is tied up in court.

GOP Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsGOP senators divided over approach to election security GOP lawmakers want Mulvaney sidelined in budget talks Overnight Defense: Officials brief Congress after Iran shoots down drone | Lawmakers fear 'grave situation' | Trump warns Iran | Senate votes to block Saudi arms sales | Bombshell confession at Navy SEAL's murder trial MORE (Maine) said immigration reform should be on the table after she helped craft a deal last year that included $25 billion for border security in exchange for a path to citizenship for DACA recipients.

“I certainly think it’s worth considering,” Collins said Thursday. “Had the Department of Homeland Security not blasted it the night before, it clearly would have passed with more Republican support. So I do see that as a potential path out of this impasse.”

Though it won a majority of the Senate, the immigration bill was one of four that was rejected last year. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) slammed the bill and Trump threatened to veto it, raising questions about its chances in the current shutdown negotiations.

Meanwhile, Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanSenate panel advances bill to protect government devices against cyber threats House passes bill to establish DHS cyber 'first responder' teams Democrats needle GOP on standing up to Trump MORE (R-Ohio) is pitching his proposal, which did not get a vote last year. That measure would establish a $25 billion border trust fund and codify protections for DACA recipients.

He argued on Thursday that it could be a “win-win” for both parties.

“That seems to me to be one where Republicans and Democrats could each find some opportunity for victory,” he said. “I think this is an example where both sides can give a little [and] we don’t have a shutdown anymore.”

Border funding in exchange for a DACA fix has been one of the broad parameters of immigration negotiations since Trump announced in September 2017 that he was ending DACA and putting the onus on Congress to find a solution. But after Trump rejected a similar offer from Senate Democrats last year, the goalposts for such a deal appear to have shifted.

Newly minted House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiTrump says he'd win the election 'easier' if Democrats impeach him Democrats give Trump trade chief high marks Hispanic Caucus seeks to retain voice in House leadership MORE (D-Calif.) appeared to squelch talk of linking the border fight and DACA recipients late last year, telling reporters that they are “two different subjects.”

And Durbin, who characterized immigration as “near and dear to my heart,” noted that Trump said he supports on immigration reform and could work with Democrats on it. 

“But he’s said that before,” Durbin said. "[DACA recipients] hang on every word. I do not want them to get their hopes up until there’s a clear indication that the president supports this.”