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New York Times / News - Politics

Senators Strike Bipartisan Deal on Immigration Despite Veto Threat

The legislation sets up a clash that will pit the political center of the Senate against the president and the Republican congressional leadership.


President Trump during a meeting with members of Congress at the White House on Tuesday. Tom Brenner/The New York Times

WASHINGTON — A broad bipartisan group of senators reached agreement Wednesday on a narrow rewrite of the nation’s immigration laws that would bolster border security and resolve the fate of the so-called Dreamers, even as President Trump suggested he would veto any plan that does not adhere to his harder-line approach.

Their compromise legislation sets up a clash pitting the political center of the Senate against Mr. Trump and the Republican congressional leadership.

Senators in both parties have been racing against a self-imposed end-of-the-week deadline to write legislation that could win wide support by increasing border security while at the same time offering a path to citizenship for young immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children.

Members of the bipartisan group, which calls itself the Common Sense Coalition, said their deal does just that. They were working Wednesday evening to determine whether their bill could garner the 60 votes necessary to break a filibuster.

“The president’s going to have a vote on his concept. I don’t think it will get 60 votes,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina and a member of the group, adding: “The bottom line then is: What do you do next? You can do what we’ve done for the last 35 years — blame each other. Or you can actually start fixing the broken immigration system. If you came out of this with strong border security — the president getting his wall and the Dream Act population being taken care of — most Americans would applaud.”

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Dreamers’ Fate Is Now Tied to Border Wall and Other G.O.P. Immigration Demands

Lawmakers are working to extend legal protections for undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children, but the discussion is complicated by other issues on the table.

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The bipartisan measure, sponsored by seven Democrats, eight Republicans and one independent, would appropriate $25 billion for border security, including construction of the president’s proposed wall at the Mexican border, over a 10-year period — not immediately, as Mr. Trump demands.

It would also offer an eventual path to citizenship, over 10 to 12 years, for 1.8 million of the young undocumented immigrants, but would preclude them from sponsoring their parents to become citizens. It would make no changes to the diversity visa lottery system, which Mr. Trump wants to end.

But in a morning statement, Mr. Trump urged senators to oppose any bill that did not also embrace the “four pillars” of his immigration approach, which includes a rewrite of the nation’s immigration laws that would close the country’s borders to many immigrants trying to come to the United States legally.

“I am asking all senators, in both parties, to support the Grassley bill and to oppose any legislation that fails to fulfill these four pillars,” Mr. Trump said in the statement, referring to the chief sponsor of the measure, Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa.

The Grassley bill would provide a path to citizenship for 1.8 million young immigrants, end the visa lottery program, build a border wall and severely limit what he calls “chain migration,” which is family-based immigration. It would also increase the use of radar and tower-based surveillance, sensors and drones mostly along the Southwest border, increase the number of border patrol officers and deploy the National Guard to help construct border fencing and operate some of the surveillance equipment.

Mr. Grassley said that in offering the young immigrants, known as Dreamers, a chance to become citizens, Mr. Trump had been “much more compassionate on a compromise than anybody thought.”

Limiting family-based immigration — which Democrats call “family reunification” — and ending the diversity visa lottery are anathema to Democrats. But it was unclear how many Democrats would sign on to the compromise as an alternative.

Senate Democrats met in a closed-door session to talk about the coalition’s plan, and lawmakers emerged saying that some of their colleagues, who favor improvements in border security but have been deeply opposed to building a wall, had reservations.

“I know that people want to get some certainty for these kids,” said Senator Heidi Heitkamp, Democrat of North Dakota. She said she would support the Common Sense measure, but added, “We’re being asked to make some tough compromises.”

Mr. Trump’s decision to weigh in forcefully called into question whether any compromise legislation would be dead on arrival at the president’s desk. His statement came as the Senate was just beginning to debate immigration using a novel approach in which lawmakers are trying to build a bill from scratch on the floor.

“He’s not helpful at all,’’ said Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate. “All he does is create a crisis and can’t help us solve it.”

In the statement, Mr. Trump said that the “overwhelming majority of American voters support a plan that fulfills the framework’s four pillars, which move us towards the safe, modern and lawful immigration system our people deserve.”

Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, also leads a bipartisan effort to overhaul federal sentencing laws. Eric Thayer for The New York Times

He added that he would oppose a short-term “Band-Aid” approach to immigration that some lawmakers have been discussing, which would protect Dreamers for a few years in exchange for a small increase in border security spending — essentially kicking the issue down the road.

Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, responded harshly to the president’s remarks, noting with dismay that Mr. Trump in September ordered an end to the Obama-era program known as DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which protected the Dreamers from deportation and provided them work permits.

“The American people know what’s going on,” Mr. Schumer said on the Senate floor. “They know this president not only created the problem, but seems to be against every solution that might pass because it isn’t 100 percent of what he wants. If, at the end of the week, we are unable to find a bill that can pass — and I sincerely hope that’s not the case due to the good efforts of so many people on both sides of the aisle — the responsibility will fall entirely on the president’s shoulders and those in this body who went along with him.”

Mr. Trump’s statement was a victory for conservatives in his administration, including Stephen Miller, his top domestic policy adviser, who have been pushing the president to demand an overhaul of the nation’s immigration rules in exchange for his support of a permanent solution for the Dreamers.

Several senior White House advisers told reporters on Wednesday that Mr. Trump would not relent in backing his hard-line immigration principles and said Dreamers should blame Democrats if legislation did not pass.

One senior adviser, who requested anonymity to discuss legislative strategy, said the president had made “dramatic concessions” by agreeing to a path to citizenship for 1.8 million young immigrants. Another made it clear that Mr. Trump would not compromise any further.

Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Senate minority leader, responded harshly to Mr. Trump’s demand for agreement with his plan on immigration. Lawrence Jackson for The New York Times

That position was underscored on Wednesday by a statement from the Department of Homeland Security that slammed a competing immigration measure being offered by Senators John McCain, Republican of Arizona, and Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware.

That bipartisan bill would call for more border security, but would not directly finance construction of a border wall that Mr. Trump has promised. The bill would offer a way for Dreamers to become legal; the homeland security statement described it as a “mass legalization” measure.

“The McCain-Coons proposal would increase illegal immigration, surge chain migration, continue catch-and-release and give a pathway to citizenship to convicted alien felons,” the statement said.

The top Republicans in both the House and Senate praised the statements from the administration on Wednesday, describing them as a lift for the approach that many of their more conservative members support.

“The president has made clear what principles must be addressed if we are going to make a law instead of merely making political points,” Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, said Wednesday morning.

Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin echoed that sentiment, saying that “the president did a very good job of putting a very sincere offer on the table. And that sincere offer that he put on the table should be the framework through which we come together to find a solution.”

While the president’s support of Mr. Grassley’s bill is not surprising, his vague promise not to support other bills is notable, as Mr. Trump told lawmakers last month that he would sign any immigration bill that Congress sends him. Republican leaders have said Congress should only pass legislation that Mr. Trump would sign, but how flexible the president would be was a crucial question for lawmakers.

Asked about Mr. Trump’s veto threat, Mr. Graham said: “Well, then, we won’t go very far. Then you’ll have three presidents who failed. You’ll have Obama, Bush and Trump.”

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