President Trump pushed a 500-page immigration bill as the only option in Congress to help "Dreamers," all but issuing a veto threat on alternatives just as a bipartisan coalition of senators appeared close Wednesday to agreeing on a proposal that may draw broader support.
Top Republicans back the administration approach from Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. That measure protects 1.8 million Dreamers from deportation in exchange for massive long-term cuts in legal immigration of family members of immigrants. It includes $25 billion for Trump's border wall and a buildup of enforcement that would increase the pace of deportations.
But even as White House aides framed any alternatives as unworkable bills that Trump would not sign into law, a group of senators, the Common Sense Coalition, led by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), appeared on the verge of a breakthrough on a rival strategy.
Their proposal would take a more narrow approach favored by Democrats, linking Dreamer protections and the $25 billion in border security. It would steer clear of the more complicated issues of family visas or legal migration limits that have drawn sharp opposition to the White House approach. But the bipartisan plan would prevent the parents of Dreamers from earning legal status — a GOP priority.
However, the swift rejection by Trump — who once assured senators he would sign whatever immigration measure they sent him — threatened to squash the bipartisan effort.
"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," Trump said, referring to his multi-pronged approach, in a statement ahead of the bipartisan group's morning meeting. "That includes opposing any short-term 'Band-Aid' approach." The pillars include Dreamers, border security, family visas and the diversity lottery.
Senators resisted Trump's move to scare them off a bipartisan plan as they tried to amass the 60 votes needed from the narrowly-divided Senate ahead of voting expected on Thursday.
"Our group from the very beginning has been committed to coming up with a bipartisan plan on immigration, and that is what it appears we've been able to do," Collins told reporters.
The group of about 25 senators has been meeting privately, including Wednesday morning.
"I know that the president wants a result, and my experience in the Senate is that you're more likely to be able to get a result when you have a bipartisan plan," Collins said, "and that's what we're seeking."
Most proposals emerging in Congress, including the one from the White House, offer the young people a 10-year path to eventual citizenship — far beyond the protections under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that only provide temporary permission to live and work in the United States.
While many senators from both parties have come to agree that Congress should protect the Dreamers, there is no such consensus around what to do about their parents, who brought the Dreamers to the United States illegally as children. Dreamers have been protected against deportation from an Obama-era program that Trump is ending.
White House officials consider the pathway to citizenship to be a "dramatic concession" that is "very large and generous." Their proposal, under Grassley's bill, goes beyond the nearly 700,000 immigrants currently protected under DACA, and extends to other young immigrants who either did not initially qualify or sign up for the Obama program.
"We went as far as we could in that direction, but any further and the House would never take up the bill and the president wouldn't be able to sign it," a White House official said.
The White House said it dropped earlier demands such as requiring businesses to use E-Verify, a federal database that allows employers to check the immigration status of new hires.
The bill is backed by top Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
Congress is trying to develop a solution before Trump ends the DACA program on March 5. That could leave Dreamers exposed to deportation, but court actions have temporarily kept the program in place.
Senators and many lawmakers in the House reject the White House proposal as too far-reaching. It had no Democratic support as debate in the Senate on immigration entered its third day and senators scrambled to find consensus.
Instead, the bipartisan effort from Collins and the other senators would provide the border funds and Dreamer protections, but prevent Dreamers from sponsoring their parents for temporary or permanent legal status.
Under current law, those who gain citizenship may help their parents also obtain visas. Dreamers have pushed hard to include protections for their parents. But some lawmakers oppose anything that might be seen as rewarding the parents for entering the country illegally.
"It's a bitter pill — to deal with $25 billion for the wall and not be able to have Dreamers claim their parents — but the choice is that or nothing," said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.).
"We're conceding that the kids are without blame," said Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who worked with the bipartisan group. "You can't reward parents who brought them across."
Trump's opposition to the bipartisan effort in the Senate gave fresh momentum to the House, where GOP leaders were assessing support for another administration-backed bill that also resembles Trump's four-pronged outline with future immigration limits.
"He's not helpful at all," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), who has long worked on bipartisan bills. "All he does is create a crisis and can't help us solve it and fix it."
Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas defended Trump's input, saying the president's endorsement would be crucial to winning over Republican votes from the GOP majority in the House.
"That's not to say he dictates what the Senate does — not at all — but if we actually want to get this signed into law … we need to take the president seriously and address all four pillars of his proposal."
Other bills have been offered, most offering Dreamers a decade-long path to citizenship along with border funds, with more narrow or expansive reforms to other immigration laws.
On Thursday, the Senate is expected to take procedural votes on both the Grassley bill and the bipartisan alternative from the Collins group, as well as two other measures. One is a bipartisan effort from Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.) reflects a House bill that sticks with Dreamer protections and border security. Another is a Republican-led bill from Sen. Patrick J. Toomey that would ban federal funding for "sanctuary cities."
Not yet scheduled for a vote is another bill from Flake that simply extends the DACA program for several years, with border security funds, while Congress addresses broader reforms.
Democrats, and some Republicans, have objected to using the DACA debate to enact sweeping immigration law changes that have traditionally been considered as part of comprehensive efforts to deal with the broader population of 11 million immigrants living illegally in the U.S.
The White House's proposal would increase deportation officers by more than 50% from about 5,000 to 8,500, and add some 6,370 Border Patrol agents to a current force of about 20,000, an increase of about a third.
Immigration judges would be increased to about 500, up from about 330. The number of government immigration lawyers would be increased as well, with an eye toward trying to get deportation cases resolved faster.
Funds going to Mexico through the Merida Initiative, designed to bolster anti-drug forces in Latin America, would be cut by half until Secretary of State Rex Tillerson can certify to Congress that Mexico has taken steps to slow illegal immigration and counter corruption.
3:20 p.m.: This article was updated with Cornyn's comments and Trump's statement.
12:20 p.m.: This article was updated with Collins' quote.