WASHINGTON (AP) — Bargainers seeking a bipartisan immigration accord planned talks as soon as Wednesday as President Donald Trump and leading lawmakers sought to parlay an extraordinary White House meeting into momentum for resolving a politically blistering issue.
Facing a Jan. 19 deadline for averting an election-year government shutdown, negotiators were seeking a formula for reviving protections against deportation that Trump has ended for nearly 800,000 immigrants who arrived illegally in the U.S. as children. In exchange, Trump and Republicans want toughened border protections and tightened restrictions on others trying to migrate to this country.
“I’ll take all the heat you want,” Trump told nearly two dozen lawmakers Tuesday at the White House for a meeting that began with a startling 55 minutes in which reporters and TV cameras watched. “But you are not that far away from comprehensive immigration reform.”
Trump said an immigration deal could be reached in two phases — first by addressing young immigrants and border security with what he called a “bill of love,” then by making comprehensive changes that have long eluded Congress. That second bill would likely face long odds for passage, considering long-running disagreements over issues like how to handle all 11 million immigrants illegally in the U.S.
Republicans will need Democratic votes to prevent a federal shutdown in 10 days, votes Democrats have threatened to withhold without an immigration agreement. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., told reporters talks would begin as early as Wednesday, adding, “And we’ll solve this problem and find common ground.”
Negotiations over the DACA program may be more complicated in light of a federal judge’s ruling Tuesday night to block temporarily the administration’s decision to end the program. In doing so, U.S. District Judge William Alsup in San Francisco granted a request by California and other plaintiffs to let lawsuits over the administration’s decision play out in court.
Alsup said lawyers in favor of DACA clearly demonstrated that the young immigrants “were likely to suffer serious, irreparable harm” without court action. The judge also said the lawyers had a strong chance of succeeding at trial.
After Trump and lawmakers spent time meeting privately, the White House and numerous lawmakers said there was agreement to limit the immediate bill to four areas. These were border security, family-based “chain migration,” a visa lottery that draws people from diverse countries and how to revive the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
That Obama-era program has given hundreds of thousands — the so-called Dreamers — a shield from deportation and the right to work legally. Trump ended it last year but gave Congress until March 5 to find a fix, and Tuesday he signaled flexibility.
“I think my positions are going to be what the people in this room come up with,” Trump said during the Cabinet Room meeting.
Trump even flashed some give on his cherished plan to build a wall along the border with Mexico, perhaps his highest profiled pledge from last year’s presidential campaign. That proposal has been strongly opposed by Democrats and many Republicans as a futile waste of money.
Trump said it needn’t be a “2,000-mile wall. We don’t need a wall where you have rivers and mountains and everything else protecting it. But we do need a wall for a fairly good portion.” He’d made similar statements last year, but this time it was in the context of negotiations for actual legislation.
Both parties were already showing signs of divisions over how much to give in upcoming talks. But one conservative foe of giving ground acknowledged the impact of Trump’s support.
“There are scores of Republicans who have shifted their position to follow the president,” said Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa. He said while he helped head off a bipartisan immigration effort in 2013, “I don’t want to promise the result will be the same. This is more momentum than I have ever seen.”
Among Democrats, Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, who attended the White House meeting, said he was open to negotiations on the four issues bargainers will address.
But Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., who was not there and like Cuellar is a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said he favored a narrow bill protecting Dreamers with perhaps something negotiable on border security.
“They took the hostage,” Gallego said of Trump’s action that would end Dreamers’ protections. “We’re not going to pay for it.”
One attendee, No. 2 Senate Democratic leader Dick Durbin of Illinois, said, “The sense of urgency, the commitment to DACA, the fact that the president said to me privately as well as publicly, ‘I want to get this done,’ I’m going to take him as his word.”
Underscoring the effort’s fresh momentum, the head of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Rep. Michelle Grisham Lujan, D-N.M., said late Tuesday she was “encouraged” by Trump’s words and would work “in good faith” toward a deal. Some of the group’s members have taken a hard line against surrendering too much in a compromise with Trump.
Conservatives quickly sounded alarms about a process that would lead to a comprehensive agreement on immigration, a path that has long been anathema to many rank-and-file Republicans.
Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., leader of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus, said in a text message after the White House meeting he was “generally” opposed to a two-step process “because history would indicate the second step never happens.” He later said that if the first steps included the four areas outlined by the White House, “then I could support a two-step process realizing that step one is the only thing that is guaranteed.”
AP reporters Kevin Freking, Andrew Taylor and Marcy Gordon contributed.