White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly complicated immigration negotiations Wednesday ahead of a possible government shutdown, telling lawmakers that President Trump’s border wall was an “uninformed” campaign promise and not likely to be funded by Mexico.
Kelly stunned Congressional Hispanic Caucus members by also suggesting that Trump’s decision to protect so-called Dreamers was a “done deal” even though they have yet to work out a compromise over the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that the administration is ending.
“He made it very clear we’re not talking about the Trump wall of the campaign — that was campaign rhetoric,” said Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Downey), whose questions about the wall provoked Kelly’s response during the closed-door session. “There was an understanding the concrete wall does not make sense.”
Kelly explained to the lawmakers that “candidates say things during the campaign that are not informed,” according to Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.).
He said a wall from “sea to shining sea” is “not what we’re doing,” according to Gutierrez.
Kelly was on Capitol Hill for a series of meetings with lawmakers ahead of Friday’s deadline to fund the government or risk a federal shutdown.
The administration is trying to broker an immigration deal as some Democrats are warning they will withhold their votes for the temporary government funding measure unless there are deportation protections for some 700,000 DACA recipients, or Dreamers. The young immigrants, brought to the U.S. illegally as children, face deportation as their permits to work and live here are set to expire in March under a deadline set by Trump.
Reaching an immigration deal by Friday remains difficult, and top congressional leaders who met separately with Kelly on Wednesday said it was unlikely. Kelly also met with conservatives from the House Freedom Caucus as well as Latino Republicans.
Lawmakers walked away from the meetings uncertain on the White House’s position, according to those briefed on the private sessions.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he’s unwilling to hold immigration votes — including on a bipartisan Senate compromise reached last week — until he knows that Trump would sign the bill into law.
”I’m looking for something that President Trump supports, and he’s not yet indicated what measure he’s willing to sign,” McConnell told reporters.
“As soon as we figure out what he is for, then I would be convinced that we are not just spinning our wheels,” he said.
Kelly confirmed much of the closed-door conversations in a Fox News interview later Wednesday.
“Campaign and governing are two very different things,” he said on Fox. He said the wall would more likely be about 700 miles of barrier, rather than the 2,000 miles Trump promised, and that Mexico would not directly pay for it.
The former Homeland Security secretary told the lawmakers he had been able to educate the president on the wall and was responsible for extending the original DACA deadline to March 5, even though the termination was announced in September.
“That was my idea,” Kelly told the lawmakers, according to Gutierrez. “I demanded it. I made it happen … And many people have thanked me for it.”
Now the administration has said it will keep the program running beyond March, pending the resolution of a federal court challenge.
Kelly also told them that Trump has already decided that the Dreamers will be protected from deportation in any immigration deal.
“They can stay. That’s done,” Kelly told them multiple times.
But lawmakers pushed back against the administration’s proposals to reduce the numbers of visas for family members, warning Kelly away from using the term “chain” migration that many in the Hispanic Caucus, in particular, find offensive.
Lawmakers also complained the White House was moving the goal posts by introducing a new plan for limits on asylum-seekers. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) told Kelly that was a “nonstarter.”
The immigration talks come as House Republicans unveiled a stopgap measure that would keep the government running past Friday’s deadline for four more weeks, through Feb. 16. Democrats say they are likely to reject the measure without a deal to protect Dreamers from deportation.
GOP leaders will try to rely on their majority to pass the bill through the House and put pressure on Senate Democrats not to block it.
Republicans hold only a narrow Senate majority, and already several GOP senators — including Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who brokered the bipartisan immigration compromise with Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and other senators — may vote against it.
That means McConnell will need about a dozen Democrats to reach the 60-vote threshold to overcome a filibuster for passage.
“When does the minority have leverage in the Senate? When you need 60 votes,” Durbin told reporters.
Democrats in the Senate are already lining up against the stopgap funding measure because they say it tilts too heavily to GOP priorities.
It would include a mix of provisions that will probably attract some votes even as they push others away. One is a reauthorization of the Children’s Health Insurance Program for six years, which is important to Democrats. Others include a two-year repeal of Affordable Care Act taxes on medical device makers, and a tax on employees’ high-priced health benefits, the so-called Cadillac tax, that some Democrats also want to end. The GOP measure does not include disaster aid, which is important to members of both parties but has stalled in the Senate.
But even House approval was uncertain after a closed-door meeting earlier this week left rank-and-file lawmakers uneasy over punting the spending bill for the fourth time this fiscal year.
Some Republicans also want a DACA fix, and plan to oppose the bill unless it has one. Conservatives, meanwhile, objected to running the government on autopilot, without more spending cuts.
“We know this is going to come down to just a few Republican votes,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, after the closed-door GOP meeting. "The number of Freedom Caucus members that are undecided could make the difference whether we pass it or not.”