As long as immigration hawks have Trump’s ear, there’s no deal

Underlying the immigration policy fight is a fight over who’s in charge.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), one of the leading Republican negotiators on immigration, says he wants to know what happened to President Trump between Tuesday and Thursday of last week.

“Tuesday we had a president that I was proud to golf with, call my friend, who understood immigration had to be bipartisan,” Graham told Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen at a Senate hearing this week. “I don’t know where that guy went. I want him back.”

Last Tuesday, at a bipartisan meeting on immigration, Trump laid out the framework of a bill that would give protections to DREAMers, fund border security, address family-based immigration and reform the visa lottery system. By Thursday he was complaining to lawmakers, including Graham, about not wanting to let immigrants from “shithole” African countries into the US.

Since Trump nixed a bipartisan agreement from Graham and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill) last week, negotiations have hit a serious snag — one that threatens the livelihoods of 690,000 young immigrants who are losing or set to lose their deportation protections under the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program program.

Trump’s “shithole” comments stoked partisan rancor, and left Congress divided between lawmakers actively participating in bipartisan negotiations, and conservative hardliners, who have shown no interest in compromise. Trump has increasingly been talking to the latter, like Reps. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), Mark Meadows (R-NC) and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR).

Until Republicans can determine who is doing the negotiating and writing the bills, we won’t know if there’s enough consensus among Democrats and Republicans in the Senate to strike a deal. And a deal is very, very far from getting made.

There’s a lot of politics underlying the DACA fight

So far, Trump has been presented with one bipartisan proposal on immigration, and shot it down.

The agreement, reached by a bipartisan group of senators led by Graham, fellow Republican Jeff Flake (R-AZ), and Democrat Durbin, would give DREAMers a chance at legal status and a path to citizenship, while restricting them from sponsoring their parents, eliminating the diversity visa lottery, and funding some border projects.

If not this bipartisan plan, then whose? The answer to that question is complicated and why negotiations have been so chaotic.

A second group of Democratic and Republican leadership deputies that have been dubbed the “No. 2s” — Durbin, again, as well as Minority Whip Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD), Majority Whip Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), and Majority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) — are also working on a deal.

“We are not going to default to existing groups,” Cornyn told reporters, indicating this group could go in a different direction than the Graham-Durbin proposal. “There were too many groups to count, and they were basically getting nowhere. So that’s why, I think, the need to move to this level.”

The only working group that has been sanctioned by Republican leadership and the White House, is the team of “No. 2s,” which came together as a reaction to a splintering landscape, but it has yet to come forward with an agreement.

There’s also another bipartisan effort between Reps. Will Hurd (R-TX) and Pete Aguilar (D-CA), which has come up with a proposal that’s roughly comparable to the Graham-Durbin agreement.

But Trump doesn’t appear to be espousing the views of any of these groups. Instead he’s turned to conservative immigration hardliners like Sens. David Perdue (R-GA), and Cotton, and Goodlatte and Meadows in the House, who have been working on extremely partisan immigration proposals that have no chance of passing the Senate.

So far, there’s no deal to be made

President Trump Meets With Bipartisan Group Of Senators On ImmigrationChip Somodevilla/Getty Images
As long as conservative lawmakers are still at the table, bipartisanship is going to be really hard.

When it comes to immigration, there’s a political reality Republicans will have to come to terms with: As Flake explained candidly, there isn’t a proposal that can please an immigration hawk, and also get 60 votes in the Senate.

“We are going to lose some on either side,” Flake said. “I don’t think we are going to get all the Republicans.”

Trump isn’t operating in this world. Instead he has taken to pushing the views of Republican lawmakers who are not interested in compromising, let alone even engaging in bipartisan talks with Democrats.

The White House continues to involve immigration hardliners who are ideologically closer to the anti-immigration platform Trump ran on in 2016, at the risk of torpedoing a deal altogether.

Trump has voiced support for Goodlatte’s immigration bill, which goes far past the framework the White House laid out for a deal. Last week, when Graham and Durbin went into the Oval Office to present their agreement to the president, Goodlatte, Perdue, and Cotton, whose proposals are unlikely to garner the support of a single Democrat, were in the room. The president has also been talking more with some of Congress’s archconservatives, like House Freedom Caucus chair Mark Meadows, White House officials told the Washington Post.

Meadows, who has long had a close relationship with Trump, and served as a kind of avatar for Trumpism in Congress, slammed the bipartisan Graham-Durbin deal ahead of Trump’s Thursday meeting on the proposal. He predicted Trump wouldn’t go for it: “Sounds like a Durbin deal,” Meadows said.

He too has been working with Goodlatte on a partisan, and much more conservative immigration proposal, that is unlikely to bring negotiations any closer to a deal.

Trump has been escalating the partisan rancor on Twitter, blaming “Dicky Durbin” and Democrats for blowing up negotiations and tweeting that a DACA deal is “probably dead.”

On Capitol Hill negotiations continue without a nucleus. The Graham-Durbin proposal persists, along with the No. 2s and Goodlatte’s conservative proposal, each vying for Trump’s final stamp of approval.

Without clear direction, the fractured landscape in Congress has left top negotiators like Graham asking Trump’s Cabinet how to proceed.

“Somebody needs to fix this problem,” Graham said of DACA to DHS Secretary Nielsen Tuesday. “Obama couldn’t do it, Bush couldn’t do it and both of them, to their great credit, tried. Do you think President Trump can do this?”

Nielsen’s response: “I think he wants to do it.”

But as long as conservative immigration hawks have Trump’s ear, there’s no deal to be made.