Republican leaders in Congress sought to reassert their authority with an unpredictable White House Thursday as President Trump dangled a potential deal with Democrats to allow hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants to stay in the United States while postponing talk of a border wall.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), in his first public comments since Trump met with Democrats the previous night, agreed in broad strokes with his goal of protecting “dreamers” and toughening U.S. border security.
But Ryan dismissed the possible deal as preliminary discussions and insisted any agreement must have buy-in from GOP leaders.
“The president understands he has to work with the congressional majorities to get any kind of legislative solution,” Ryan said at a news conference on Capitol Hill.
Whether Trump does understand that, however, is unclear, and there was no sign Thursday that Republicans were on a path back to his negotiating table.
Ryan and his Senate counterpart, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), have been in limbo since Trump suddenly shifted allegiances to Democrats last week, brokering a deal to raise the debt ceiling and fund the government and effectively forcing GOP leaders to accept it post-hoc.
Their uncomfortable position was obvious Thursday, as Ryan tried make clear that discussions about next steps on “dreamers” must originate with House Republicans, but also have support from the Oval Office.
“We’re not going to bring a solution to the floor that does not have the support of President Trump,” Ryan said,
“If we have the support of President Trump … that I believe will get a majority of our members because our members support President Trump,” he said.
At one point, he accidentally confirmed his distance from Wednesday night’s proceedings.
“There is no agreement,” Ryan said, noting he only spoke with Trump and White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly Thursday morning — more than 12 hours after Democrats announced a possible deal.
McConnell remained noncommittal about a possible deal and put the onus on the White House to come up with a proposal.
“As Congress debates the best ways to address illegal immigration through strong border security and interior enforcement, DACA should be part of those discussions. We look forward to receiving the Trump administration’s legislative proposal as we continue our work on these issues,” McConnell said in a statement Thursday.
Despite these statements, the day’s events revealed Trump to be the biggest deciding factor in what happens next, with multiple rank-and-file Republicans indicating they are open to what he chooses to support.
Trump exercises the most power in the dynamic even though he appears not to have a complete grasp of the details. The president swept the debate into further confusion Thursday by saying he wasn’t considering allowing “dreamers” to become citizens, putting him at odds with top congressional Democrats who believed he supported the idea.
“We’re not looking at citizenship,” Trump told reporters on an airport tarmac in Florida, where he was scheduled to check in on relief efforts following Hurricane Irma.
“We’re not looking at amnesty. We’re looking at allowing people to stay here. … We’re talking about taking care of people, people who were brought here, people who’ve done a good job,” he said.
The comments created some awkwardness for Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N. Y) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who had said Trump was willing to support protecting “dreamers” under the so-called Dream Act, which includes a long-term path to citizenship.
“I do believe that there is an understanding that down the road, there is an eventual path to citizenship in the DREAM Act,” Pelosi said at a Thursday news conference on Capitol Hill.
Asked about Trump’s comments in Florida, Pelosi said she was basing her comments on their agreement Wednesday night.
“That’s in the bill,” she said of the pathway to citizenship in the Dream Act. “That’s in the bill”
The back-and-forth was just one element of a chaotic day that many lawmakers spent debating the implications of Trump’s agreement with Schumer and Pelosi.
The two seemed encouraged by their position in the debate. On Thursday morning, an energetic Schumer was caught on a hot mic on the Senate floor reflecting on the previous night’s dinner.
“He likes us,” Schumer appeared to say about the president. “He likes me anyway … Here’s what I told him: Mr. President, you’re much better off if you do one step right, and one step left. If you just step in one direction, you’re boxed. He gets that.”
In a positive sign for the White House, few rank-and-file Republicans rejected out-of-hand the notion of a deal combining border security measures with protection for “dreamers,” even if it means no immediate funding for a border wall.
“Any immigration fix will have to address the security of the southern border. A wall for a wall’s sake? Not so much,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), chairman of the conservative Freedom Caucus.
A path to citizenship could complicate the debate for many Republicans, Meadows added, though GOP members seemed to adopt a wait-and-see attitude as the White House hammers out its plan.
Schumer and Pelosi said border security measures in the final agreement could include drones, sensor technology, road repairs and other strategies included in a bipartisan bill from 2013 that instructed federal officials to draft a plan ensuring apprehension of 90 percent of all illegal border-crossers within five years.
Some Republicans want tougher immigration enforcement and mandatory use of the E-verify employment eligibility system as part of a final deal.
But even immigration hard-liners like Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Pa.) seemed open to hearing what the White House comes up with.
“We want to have compassion for these children. … At the same time, the American people need to be brought into this too. What will they get?” Barletta said, adding he’s not disappointed in Trump.
“He’s kept his promises on the campaign trail. I have no reason to believe he’s not going to,” Barletta said.
Hard line conservatives had initially reacted to Trump’s agreement with shock and outrage.
Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) tweeted Wednesday night that the deal would ensure Trump’s base is “blown up, destroyed, irreparable, and disillusioned beyond repair.”
“He hasn’t had enough voices reminding him of his campaign promises, and I want to remind him,” King said Thursday, acknowledging that “it’s harder to resist the president of your own party.”
Trump said Thursday morning he would only agree to a deal if it includes “extreme security.”
“We want to get massive border security. And I think that both Nancy Pelosi and Charles E. Schumer, I think they agree with it,” Trump said on the Florida tarmac.
“Look, 92 percent of the people agree on DACA, but what we want is very, very powerful border security, okay?” he said, referring to survey data in support of “dreamers.”
No matter where the negotiations go in the coming weeks, they will not include serious consideration of a GOP plan to limit legal immigration.
The Raise Act, proposed by Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and David Perdue (R-Ga.), would slash legal immigration levels in half over the next decade and cap annual refugee admissions at 50,000.
While the bill is popular with Trump’s most ardent supporters and conservative lawmakers, it is widely opposed by Democrats and many Republicans, who see it as potentially harmful to the economy and a break with decades of American tradition.
The measure has Trump’s support, but he agreed Wednesday night to not include it as part of any “dreamer” agreement, according to multiple people familiar with the meeting who asked for anonymity to speak about it.
The path ahead could be perilous for Democrats regardless.
Rep. Raul Grijalva, the vice-chair of the congressional Hispanic Caucus, said he worries that the White House is sending mixed messages about Trump’s true intentions on immigration and that the discussion of border security appears to be drifting away from plans to invest in new technology for monitoring the border and toward more aggressive immigration enforcement tactics.
The Arizona Democrat said many members are worried that pairing border security with protections for “dreamers” in a single bill could put Democrats in the difficult position of deciding whether to vote for a Dream Act that includes security measures they oppose.
“I really believe that everyone one of us is going to face a crucible where there is going to be something in the security package that we have opposed,” Grijalva said.
“There will be this humanity demand versus upping the security and letting [immigration enforcement] become more extra judicial.”
In the House, these concerns led members of the minority to discuss working with GOP leaders to allow separate votes on proposals to protect “dreamers” and bolster border security.
But those familiar with the idea, who asked for anonymity to speak frankly about the talks, stressed it’s in the preliminary stages and may ultimately not be feasible.
Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) spoke for many Democrats when he urged leaders to proceed with caution.
“I’ve no idea how Donald Trump’s brain works. All I know is, he’s caused a lot of concern and anxiety among 800,000 people, and we’ve got to find a way to fix this,” McGovern said.
“I know where his heart is and it’s not where mine is. … So we’re all a little bit skeptical because of who he is. When it comes to immigrants, he’s not a very nice person.”
Paul Kane, Kelsey Snell and Amber Phillips contributed.