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The Dreamer Deal That Wasn’t

A bipartisan group of senators thought they had a deal on DACA. Then the president weighed in.

Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake speaks to reporters following a vote on Capitol Hill on Thursday in Washington.
Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake speaks to reporters following a vote on Capitol Hill on Thursday in Washington. Zach Gibson/Getty Images

Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake was confident on Thursday morning.

“We’ve pretty much got a bill,” the retiring senator, one of the most moderate members of his caucus on immigration, said of his bipartisan working group to address the expiring Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Flake said the legislation would be introduced “soon” and that they would be going to the White House imminently to present it to the president.

It was true that this bipartisan “Gang of Six”—comprised of Flake, fellow Republicans Lindsey Graham and Cory Gardner, and Democrats Dick Durbin, Bob Menendez, and Michael Bennet—had reached a deal in principle. It would reportedly offer a path to citizenship for both DACA recipients and the broader Dreamer population along with a few billion dollars (with some discretion) for border security, limited ability for Dreamers to sponsor family members, and a redistribution of diversity lottery visas. It sounded like a modest, straight-down-the-middle compromise on contentious issues.

The only problem? There was no indication Thursday that anyone else in the United States Congress or the White House was on board with it.

By midafternoon, after the deal had been outlined to the president at the White House, it was clear that Donald Trump didn’t particularly care for the six senators’ compromise. Senate leaders got the message and threw buckets of cold water on the notion that they were ready to move on any sort of deal.

“I think what the president told them is it’s fine for them to have negotiated what they think is a reasonable proposal,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn told reporters, “but what they need to do is share that with others so that we’ll have broad enough support to actually get it passed. So I think that message has been delivered.”

Cornyn was the most generous.

“It doesn’t sound like the president agreed to that,” Sen. John Thune, the No. 3 Senate Republican, said of the proposal. I asked him if the president didn’t like what he saw.

“I think that’s correct,” he said.

Descriptions of the president’s reaction to the bill tended to correspond to one’s own immigration politics. Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, for example, an immigration hawk intent on destroying the Gang of Six bill, called it, alternately, a “pine needle” and a “joke” of a proposal. Cotton was in the White House meeting, and from his telling, Trump hated it just as much as he did.

The Gang of Six proposal had “inadequate funding for security measures, doesn’t end chain migration, doesn’t end the diversity lottery so much as reassigns those green cards to other categories,” Cotton said.
Trump wasn’t pleased and, in Cotton’s words, told the Gang of Six to go “back to the drawing board.”

And that was just the PG-rated recap of the meeting. As the Washington Post reported Thursday afternoon, Trump asked the group, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” He suggested that it would be preferable to accept more immigrants from countries like Norway. (Trump met Wednesday with Norway’s prime minister.)

On Capitol Hill, underlying all of the pushback is a catty turf war, the best of absurdist bureaucratic dramas.

With so many immigration working groups putting forward bills—House conservatives also released a proposal Wednesday, and House centrists released their own proposal earlier in the week—leaders have formed their own uber–working group. It is comprised of Durbin, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, and Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn. (This group is operating under the shorthand of “the No. 2s.”) Crucially, the White House also has a seat at this table: chief of staff John Kelly.

The group of elite deputies naturally see themselves as the working group, given their august titles, and dismiss the Gang of Six as just a “subgroup” of senators chitchatting about immigration. Even though one of its members—Durbin—is a member of both groups, they refuse to call the Gang of Six “the working group.” Marc Short, the White House legislative director, told reporters, with a subtly patronizing air, that it was “great” how those six senators had reached an accord among themselves. The real group would be sure to consider their ideas.

“It does not reflect the viewpoints of all the people in the working group,” Short said. By “the working group,” he of course meant the one in which the White House was involved. Anything else, to the White House, was merely conversation between members.

Members of the Gang of Six insisted Wednesday afternoon that their deal hadn’t already been killed. Even though it’s been met coolly, or treated as a side exercise before the real group comes up with “the” bill, it’s still “the only game in town,” as Flake put it. When briefed on Cotton’s criticism, Graham challenged Cotton to write a bill that could win Democratic votes. They said they would begin the process of selling their bill to members.

That’s not going to be easy. Without the president’s support, it doesn’t have a prayer of going anywhere with House Republicans. And if House Republicans aren’t going to go along with it, Senate Republicans aren’t going to bother either. Though the early reports of the compromise suggest Democrats could have fared far worse, House Democrats are furious that the discussions even include topics like limiting family sponsorships and curtailing the diversity lottery. They just want protections for Dreamers. If the bill were pushed any further to the right to get the president’s support, Democrats might revolt. Immigration reform, even when it’s narrowed down to limited parameters, is hard. That’s why it doesn’t happen.

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