Lawmakers are opening the door to reviving deeply polarizing immigration negotiations as they search for a way out of the partial government shutdown, which hit the two-week mark on Friday.
An agreement to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws has eluded Congress for years, underscoring the difficult path awaiting lawmakers and the White House if they decide to broaden the divisive border wall fight.
But with President Trump and congressional Democrats at a stalemate with no signs of reaching an agreement to reopen roughly 25 percent of the government, making immigration reform part of the negotiations is gaining traction among senators on both sides of the aisle who are eager for a way out of the shutdown.
“It’s come back to life again,” said Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, of a potential immigration deal. “We’ll see if it has legs.”
There’s been no formal agreement among leadership or the White House to insert an immigration overhaul into the shutdown talks, where funding for Trump’s proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border is the key sticking point.
Immigration reform was brought up during Wednesday’s closed-door meeting at the White House that included Trump, congressional leaders and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who attended the meeting, said the topic was broached “in a bleak way,” and he appeared wary of wading into negotiations on immigration without Trump’s clear support.
“I’ll tell ya, it’s such a bitter experience a year ago. And I told the president that I had a bitter experience,” Durbin told The Hill, referring to the White House meeting. “We’re not going to jump back in that until there’s a pretty clear public commitment from the president.”
The politics surrounding immigration could create more obstacles to resolving the shutdown. The issue has becoming a political lightning rod among the base in both parties.
Democratic leadership would face intense pressure from a newly muscular progressive wing to take a hardline, and Trump has shown he is susceptible to conservative criticism on immigration, which he has used as leverage to fire up his own supporters.
“You know, sometimes the best way to solve a problem is to make it bigger, and that’s always one of the options here,” he said.
With no progress on an agreement for border funding — Trump appeared to reject a $2.5 billion deal pitched by officials in his own administration — a growing number of rank-and-file members are calling for immigration to be linked to the border wall talks.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) proposed reviving a 2013 immigration bill during a closed-door Democratic leadership meeting this week. That bill, which passed the Democratic-led Senate but died in the GOP-controlled House, included a pathway to citizenship for the broader undocumented immigration population while also including roughly $40 billion for border security.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) is urging Trump to strike a deal on comprehensive immigration reform, arguing it could be his “Nixon to China” moment and bring an end to the partial government shutdown.
“Why would he not agree to such a thing?” Alexander said. “We could go small, we could go a little bigger … but I’d like to see the president say, ‘OK, we’ve got a new Congress. We’ve got divided government. I’m the president who can actually make this happen.’”
Other lawmakers are raising the prospect of a smaller deal that would focus on immigrants who were brought into the United States illegally when they were children.
One option getting attention from lawmakers would be to include a fix for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients. Lawmakers in both parties say they are sympathetic to immigrants who entered the country illegally as children, but they’ve punted the issue as the fate of the Obama-era program is tied up in court.
GOP Sen. Susan Collins (Maine) said immigration reform should be on the table after she helped craft a deal last year that included $25 billion for border security in exchange for a path to citizenship for DACA recipients.
“I certainly think it’s worth considering,” Collins said Thursday. “Had the Department of Homeland Security not blasted it the night before, it clearly would have passed with more Republican support. So I do see that as a potential path out of this impasse.”
Though it won a majority of the Senate, the immigration bill was one of four that was rejected last year. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) slammed the bill and Trump threatened to veto it, raising questions about its chances in the current shutdown negotiations.
Meanwhile, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) is pitching his proposal, which did not get a vote last year. That measure would establish a $25 billion border trust fund and codify protections for DACA recipients.
He argued on Thursday that it could be a “win-win” for both parties.
“That seems to me to be one where Republicans and Democrats could each find some opportunity for victory,” he said. “I think this is an example where both sides can give a little [and] we don’t have a shutdown anymore.”
Border funding in exchange for a DACA fix has been one of the broad parameters of immigration negotiations since Trump announced in September 2017 that he was ending DACA and putting the onus on Congress to find a solution. But after Trump rejected a similar offer from Senate Democrats last year, the goalposts for such a deal appear to have shifted.
Newly minted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) appeared to squelch talk of linking the border fight and DACA recipients late last year, telling reporters that they are “two different subjects.”
And Durbin, who characterized immigration as “near and dear to my heart,” noted that Trump said he supports and could work with Democrats on immigration reform.
“But he’s said that before,” Durbin said. “[DACA recipients] hang on every word. I do not want them to get their hopes up until there’s a clear indication that the president supports this.”