Congress opens door to fraught immigration talks

Lawmakers are opening the door to reviving immigration negotiations, but a renewed effort to find a deal on border security is facing long odds on Capitol Hill.

With President TrumpDonald John TrumpA better VA, with mental health services, is essential for America's veterans Pelosi, Nadler tangle on impeachment, contempt vote Trump arrives in Japan to kick off 4-day state visit MORE’s frustration with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) boiling over and a spike in migrants detained at the border, the White House is jump-starting its outreach to Democrats.

Acting chief of staff Mick MulvaneyJohn (Mick) Michael MulvaneyTrump arrives in Japan to kick off 4-day state visit On The Money: Judge rules banks can give Trump records to House | Mnuchin pegs debt ceiling deadline as 'late summer' | Democrats see momentum in Trump tax return fight | House rebukes Trump changes to consumer agency House rebukes Mulvaney's efforts to rein in consumer bureau MORE and acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan met Wednesday night with a group of Democrats — including Senate Minority Whip Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinSenate Democrats to House: Tamp down the impeachment talk Threat of impeachment takes oxygen out of 2019 agenda Senate Democrats request watchdog, Red Cross probe DHS detention facilities MORE (D-Ill.) and Sens. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinFive takeaways from Barr's new powers in 'spying' probe Senate Democrats to House: Tamp down the impeachment talk Feinstein, Iranian foreign minister had dinner amid tensions: report MORE (D-Calif.) and Gary PetersGary Charles PetersOvernight Energy: Democrats push EPA to collect 4K in 'excessive' Pruitt travel expenses | Greens angered over new rules for rocket fuel chemical | Inslee to join youth climate strikers in Las Vegas Democrats push EPA to collect 4K from Pruitt for 'excessive airfare expenses' Senate Commerce chair to renew push for regs on self-driving vehicles MORE (D-Mich.), the top Democrats on the Judiciary and Homeland Security committees — to make the case for why it’s time for Congress to resolve the “humanitarian crisis” along the border.

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But Durbin was noncommittal about the chances that the latest round of talks will break the stalemate between Congress and the administration, which has rejected immigration deals that have emerged from the Senate.

“I can just tell you, this president has broken my heart so many times on immigration,” he told The Hill. “I start with a healthy degree of skepticism that we can do anything substantial.”

Other Democrats involved in the talks described them as “broad,” with no decision yet on the parameters for further negotiations. Lawmakers and the administration are expected to meet again after Congress’s two-week recess.

The path to a deal on immigration and border security is fraught with political and policy landmines, with bases in both parties likely to draw hard lines on what they could support in a potential agreement heading into the 2020 election.

Immigration talks have routinely collapsed on Capitol Hill amid deep policy divisions on crucial issues, including an unresolved fight over the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, a conservative push to cut legal immigration and the perennial battle over Trump’s controversial U.S.-Mexico border wall.

Trump rejected a DACA-border security deal last year that included changes to the State Department’s diversity visa lottery program and family-based immigration policies two days after he told lawmakers that he would “take the heat” by supporting a bill. A separate proposal introduced by a group of Senate centrists last year failed to break a 60-vote filibuster after Trump threatened to veto it.

Sen. John CornynJohn CornynThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump says no legislation until Dems end probes Bipartisan House bill calls for strategy to protect 5G networks from foreign threats Collins offering bill to boost battery research as GOP pushes energy 'innovation' MORE (R-Texas), a member of GOP leadership and the Judiciary Committee, told The Los Angeles Times that he isn’t getting his hopes up on the prospects of a deal this time around.

“Most of the time, the immigration debate is a zero-sum game, and we never quite get there,” he said. “It always ends up breaking your heart.”

Trump is throwing another wild card into the negotiations by lashing out at Democrats even as his administration has reached out to lawmakers. He characterized them as being “treasonous” on border security hours after Mulvaney met with a group of Senate Democrats.

Ramping up the fight Friday, Trump said he is considering sending undocumented immigrants to so-called sanctuary cities, which do not comply with federal immigration law.

“Due to the fact that Democrats are unwilling to change our very dangerous immigration laws, we are indeed, as reported, giving strong considerations to placing Illegal Immigrants in Sanctuary Cities only,” Trump wrote in a tweet.

Democrats pounced on Trump’s comments, underscoring the political gap with the White House.

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiPelosi, Nadler tangle on impeachment, contempt vote Hillary Clinton slams Trump for spreading 'sexist trash' about Pelosi Hillicon Valley: Facebook won't remove doctored Pelosi video | Trump denies knowledge of fake Pelosi videos | Controversy over new Assange charges | House Democrats seek bipartisan group on net neutrality MORE (D-Calif.), whose support would be needed for any potential deal, told reporters that “it’s just another notion that is unworthy of the presidency of the United States and disrespectful of the challenges that we face as a county, as a people, to address who we are: a nation of immigrants.”

Sen. Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeyHillicon Valley: Assange hit with 17 more charges | Facebook removes record 2.2B fake profiles | Senate passes anti-robocall bill | Senators offer bill to help companies remove Huawei equipment Senate passes anti-robocall bill The Hill's 12:30 Report: Pelosi fires back in feud with Trump MORE (D-Mass.) added that Congress “must investigate, hold hearings, and hold accountable those who proposed this horrific and illegal course of action.”

But the nascent talks about trying again on immigration are getting a boost from top Republicans, who argue that it’s past time to tackle the issue.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump orders more troops to Mideast amid Iran tensions What if 2020 election is disputed? Immigration bills move forward amid political upheaval MORE (R-Ky.) told reporters during a pen-and-pad session in the Capitol that he was willing to “enter into a negotiation” with Democrats to try to find a deal that tackled the nation’s asylum laws and border security.  

“It can't all be solved by changing personnel. Some of it requires changing the law. That means we have to deal with the Democrats. They're in the majority in the House,” McConnell said, tipping his hand to the shake-up at DHS that resulted in the department losing several senior officials in the past week.

Republican senators say they are also working to come up with a tightly focused deal that would tackle asylum.

Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonFrustration boils over with Senate's 'legislative graveyard' Barr throws curveball into Senate GOP 'spying' probe Bipartisan group of senators introduce legislation designed to strengthen cybersecurity of voting systems MORE (R-Wis.), the chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said he is working to draft narrow legislation, though he acknowledged it could expand in order to gain support.

“I’m not talking about the whole broken immigration system,” he said. “We need a more accurate initial determination of an asylum claim.”

He added that lawmakers were “a lot further along” than they have been in the past and that he has “interest from Democrats” in his proposal.

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamTrump declassification move unnerves Democrats Climate change is a GOP issue, too New Yorker cover titled 'The Shining' shows Graham, McConnell, Barr polishing Trump's shoes MORE (R-S.C.), the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, added that he thinks it’s possible Congress could get a narrow deal. Though he wants the White House to put forward its own proposal, he said that if it does not do so by the time Congress returns from recess on April 29, he would be ready to introduce his own legislation.

“If there’s any reason left in the body, we’ll find a way to get there,” he told The Hill about the chances of getting a deal.

Pressed on how he could get Democrats to go along with changing asylum rules, he added, “That’s part of the negotiation. ... What do you want?”