Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill enter the next chapter in the fight over President Donald Trump’s border wall skeptical that a broad immigration deal can be reached and with a mission: Keep negotiations narrow and avoid another shutdown.
“I am not ruling anything out at this point. It’s just an effort to pass a (Department of Homeland Security) appropriations bill and put an end to recurring presidential threats of a shutdown,” said Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Democrat in the chamber. “I go into this to solve the problem as best I can, but I don’t go in with any high expectations when it comes to the immigration side. … I don’t go in with any high hopes that will be successful on immigration issues and I am not walking in there with an immigration agenda.”
After the longest government shutdown in history, lawmakers returned Monday to Washington sober to the realities that the next three weeks will entail grueling negotiations between two sides that have spent the last month engaged in raw, partisan posturing. If an immigration deal has eluded Congress for decades, members are keen to the fact that the environment over the next three weeks isn’t likely to produce one.
“That would be really challenging,” Sen. John Thune of Texas, the second-ranking Republican in the chamber, told reporters Monday night. “I think this is going to be all about the number. But who knows? That would be great. The President put some stuff in play. If the Democrats are willing to make a broader deal, I don’t think we know the answer to that yet.”
The contours of the spending negotiations are still taking shape. The conference committee — made up of Republican and Democratic lawmakers from both the House and Senate — will begin meeting Wednesday afternoon.
“My focus is on the appropriation aspect,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican from West Virginia who’s serving on the conference committee. “Whether we go bigger remains to be seen.”
Asked if negotiators should try to tackle a broader immigration overhaul, Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine said that should depend on whether it brings them votes for a final deal.
“In my view, it depends on how you get the votes,” she said. “I very much want the (recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program) given a path to citizenship. I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
Each party has long established its immigration battle lines. For Republicans, the President’s border wall will be the prize even as rank-and-file Republicans acknowledge that the showdown may come down to a game of semantics. On Monday, many Republicans referred to the wall as a “barrier,” a nod to a détente over the war of words that has transpired over the President’s signature campaign promise. On Friday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wouldn’t definitively rule out a barrier at the Southern border.
Democrats, meanwhile, still argue they too support border security, just more in the form of technology and at ports of entry than in the form of a wall. Many Republicans, meanwhile, have long agreed there should be some protection for individuals with DACA status even as the extent of those protections is a source of division within the party.
As part of his negotiation during the shutdown, the President proposed $5.7 billion for his border wall in exchange for three years of protections for DACA recipients and another three years for immigrants who had Temporary Protected Status. Democrats rejected the offer, arguing they wanted a more permanent solution.
But even keeping a negotiation about border money and DACA recipients has proved too difficult in the past. The White House rejected a bipartisan proposal last year that included $25 billion for the wall over a decade in exchange for a path to citizenship for DACA recipients and significant changes to the country’s legal immigration system.
“I think what the President proposed on TPS and DACA are a good starting point. That’s not a comprehensive immigration bill, but they are significant changes, and I think that is possible, so I’m very interested in helping the President getting money for barriers as part of a broader border security package,” said Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio. “I think the way that happens is to focus on the two areas: DACA and TPS. If you go beyond that in a short period of time, I think it is difficult to see a solution.”
Trump has remained somewhat skeptical that Congress can come to an agreement he would support. He told the Wall Street Journal on Sunday that he thought the chances of a new deal being reached in the next three weeks were “less than 50-50.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, told reporters that he talked Monday to Trump and he thought “the President’s in the mode of doing a deal.”
“We’ll just see if we can get reasonable people to agree,” Graham said.
But winning over Democrats for significant funding for the border wall will be a tall task.
Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat who is on the conference committee, said Democrats are going to go in with a “united front.” Asked if Democrats would agree to any money for the wall, he said, “I will be with the group together — whatever the consensus of the group, I will be with.”
“We do have a consensus with the wall — I think we are all against the wall.”