Democratic leaders said Wednesday night they have reached agreement with President Trump to provide legal status for 800,000 immigrants who came to the country illegally as children, part of a package that would include border security but not money for a wall on the Mexican border.
The deal, announced after a dinner of Chinese food at the White House, would need to be approved by Congress. But it could provide further momentum to a budding movement toward bipartisanship that began last week when Trump reached a fiscal agreement with Democrats to keep the government open to early December and authorize enough borrowing to pay the nation's debts.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York said in a joint statement that the two sides agreed to write into law protections from deportation for the so-called Dreamers, which would be incorporated into a broader measure that would beef up border security.
Pelosi and Schumer said the deal would not include Trump's signature promise to build a border wall, loathed by Democrats. But White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders issued a Twitter statement denying that the wall was excluded from an agreement to replace the program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
"While DACA and border security were both discussed, excluding the wall was certainly not agreed to," Sanders wrote.
However, the administration has indicated in recent days that Trump would be open to pursuing border wall money in separate legislation to avoid holding up a bill to help Dreamers, and Democrats were adamant that Trump had agreed.
"The President made clear he would continue pushing the wall, just not as part of this agreement," tweeted Schumer spokesman Matt House.
But disagreement over whether the deal includes the wall or not could scuttle it.
Building the border wall is important for many Trump supporters. But Democrats made it clear to the president that wall funding is a nonstarter, particularly in the House, where Pelosi will need to find votes for stepped-up border security from within her party to make up for Republicans who oppose granting legal status to Dreamers.
The two Democratic leaders said they also urged Trump to help stabilize health insurance markets created under the Affordable Care Act, by making permanent the federal cost-sharing payments to offset unanticipated losses, but apparently no agreement was reached.
Whatever might emerge on the DACA issue, Trump's eagerness to accommodate Dreamers represents a remarkable turnaround since his days as a candidate, when he promised to end DACA as part of a broader crackdown on immigrants who entered the country illegally. Trump announced only last week that he would begin phasing out the policy, established by President Obama in 2012, that had allowed Dreamers to obtain renewable work permits or seek an education and remain in the country without fear of deportation.
The replacement bill sought by Democrats, the Dream Act, would go further than DACA, providing the young immigrants with a pathway to eventual citizenship. The deal would include that path to citizenship, according to a person briefed on the White House dinner.
The contours of a deal began taking shape last week, shortly after Trump made his decision to phase out DACA over the next six months, saying he was giving lawmakers time to provide a legislative solution.
Trump promised repeatedly during the presidential campaign that he would build a border wall, and Mexico would pay for it. The White House still insists Mexico will reimburse any U.S. expenditures, but Mexican officials contend that they will never pay for the wall.
On the other hand, the White House has been backing away from its insistence that wall funding be included in a bill to give legal status to Dreamers, while insisting that the money would still be a priority for the administration in separate legislation.
Before Wednesday's dinner with Pelosi and Schumer, Trump indicated during a bipartisan meeting with rank-and-file lawmakers at the White House that he understood the difficulty of tying wall money to a DACA fix, and lawmakers said they understood he would work on funding the border wall through separate measures.
"The president is committed to sticking by his commitment that a physical structure is what is needed to help protect America," White House legislative director Marc Short told reporters at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. "Whether or not that is specifically part of the DACA package, or a different legislative package, I am not going to prejudge here today."
Trump had previously threatened to shut down the government if he could not get wall money included in a fiscal bill to keep the government open.
News of a possible deal late Wednesday sparked a cautious reaction from Cesar Vargas, co-director of the Dream Action Coalition. "Details matter," he said. "We won't celebrate just yet."
Opposition was swift, and strong, from those Republicans most opposed to any leniency for illegal immigration.
"@RealDonaldTrump Unbelievable! Amnesty is a pardon for immigration law breakers coupled with the reward of the objective of their crime," tweeted Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa).
Breitbart News, run by Trump's former chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, ran a headline Wednesday night decrying "Amnesty Don," accusing the president of caving on his promise to revoke DACA.
And Sean Hannity tweeted: "And if @POTUS doesn't keep that promise, and goes for amnesty, it will be the political equivalent [of] 'read my lips, no new taxes.' "
Dreamers have long been among the most sympathetic figures in the immigration debate. Even many who favor cracking down on illegal immigration have said the country should find a way to grant them legal status, since they came as minors with no choice in the matter and have little experience in navigating their home countries.
Trump, who put illegal immigration at the center of his campaign, has struggled with it as president. He promised repeatedly to end DACA, which he called illegal. But he has often expressed sympathy for its recipients.
"We are gonna deal with DACA with heart," Trump said at a February news conference. "The DACA situation is a very difficult thing for me, as I love these kids, I love kids. I have kids and grandkids, and I find it very, very hard doing what the law says exactly to do and, you know, the law is rough."
Late Wednesday, Pelosi sent a letter to House Democrats recapping the meeting with the president and reiterating that the Dream Act, sponsored by Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Downey), must be part of any deal. She also said that during an earlier meeting with House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), she suggested a bipartisan Homeland Security bill that could be the basis for the border security package.
"Any solution to the challenge facing the DREAMers must include the DREAM Act sponsored by Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard," Pelosi wrote.
9:30 p.m.: The story was updated throughout with additional details on the discussions and background on DACA.
8 p.m.: The story was updated with a tweet from the White House spokeswoman denying that a border wall was excluded from the purported deal.