The federal government is back open for business Tuesday, but the immigration
fight that brought it to a three-day shutdown is far from over.
On Monday, Congress passed a stopgap spending bill that funds the government
through Feb. 8, with Democrats crossing over to back the measure in exchange
for assurances that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., would
bring an immigration bill to the floor. McConnell said he would pursue
legislation to address the legal status of roughly 700,000 immigrants
protected by the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program,
which will expire in March, as well as border security and other issues.
Congress will also need to agree on a long-term funding plan in that time,
and finding a bipartisan solution on immigration in the 16 days until
the next deadline is far from easy.
To begin with, President Trump has been inconsistent on what kind of immigration
bill he would sign, despite an insistence otherwise from White House press
secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Monday. The broad framework is that,
in exchange for a permanent fix for DACA, the president wants funding
for the border wall he touted frequently during the campaign, along with
an end to what he calls chain migration — or legal immigrants bringing
other family members to the U.S. — and an end to the visa lottery system.
But when Trump held a bipartisan discussion with lawmakers earlier this
month, he signaled that he would sign whatever bill Congress sent him,
even if he wasn't "in love with" it and that he would take
any backlash from both sides. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has
said that he offered Trump funding for his border wall on Friday, hours
before the shutdown started, as part of a deal for DACA protections but
that Trump's chief of staff, John Kelly, later called to say the deal was off.
Tensions were already inflamed after Trump reportedly used a vulgarity
to refer to African countries and disparaged Haiti during a discussion
of U.S. visa and immigration policies with a bipartisan group of senators
earlier this month.
On Monday, Sanders wouldn't commit to Trump's supporting a path
to citizenship, instead of simply a legal status for the "DREAMers."
That is the common name given to those who are in the U.S. illegally after
entering the country as children. For Democrats, and even some Republicans,
a status short of citizenship could be a nonstarter.
And even if a bill passes the Senate, it could have a much tougher time
in the House, where Republicans say they will not be bound by any deal
made in the Senate. The last time the Senate passed a major immigration
reform bill, in 2013, it died a year later in the House.
Trump did meet with six GOP senators on Monday to discuss "the next
steps on responsible immigration reform." That group included immigration
hard-liners such as Sens. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and David Perdue, R-Ga.,
who were not members of the bipartisan group that has been working to
find a solution palpable to both sides. Not in attendance were Sens. Lindsey
Graham, R-S.C., and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who are part of the bipartisan
group, but Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., who has spoken out in favor of
protecting DACA recipients, was there.
Graham — once a strident opponent of Trump's who has developed
a cozy relationship with the president over the past few months —
said over the weekend that he is skeptical of many of the president's
advisers, especially White House senior policy aide Stephen Miller, who
push Trump in a conservative direction on immigration as soon as he seems
to want a compromise.
The president also conferred with two conservative Democrats at the White
House on Monday, Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and the newly-elected
Doug Jones of Alabama. Upon returning to the Capitol, they said that specifics
weren't discussed but sounded optimistic that an immigration deal
could be reached.
"I think he's very much committed to relieving this DACA challenge
that we all have. I don't think anyone wants to be in it, no one is
insensitive about that. In talking with his chief of staff, General Kelly,
I'm just hopeful we can find that pathway forward ... The House is
going to have to do their thing, but the Senate is in a position to move
forward, and he's hoping that they'll come to something that they
can all live with," said Manchin, who faces a tough re-election campaign
this November. He's one of 10 Democrats running again in states that
Trump won in 2016.
Further direct talks with Trump may have to wait. He is slated to travel
to Davos, Switzerland, this week for the World Economic Forum. The president's
first State of the Union address next Tuesday provides him a highly visible
opportunity to expand on what he wants in a bill, just over a week before
the critical deadline.
While some Democrats and progressive groups said that Schumer "caved,"
more moderate lawmakers expressed optimism that McConnell would keep his
promise to bring a bill to the floor. That is despite the fact that he
hasn't yet fulfilled pledges to other lawmakers in exchange for their
votes last month on the GOP tax bill.
"It's one thing to make a promise behind closed doors in a conversation.
It's another thing to be before C-SPAN and before the whole world
saying, 'I will bring a bill forward, it will be neutral, it will
be an open, level playing field.' That's a commitment," Sen.
Angus King, I-Maine, who caucuses with Democrats,
told NPR's All Things Considered on Monday.
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