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Trump presses senators to work again on immigration reform

President Trump, photographed at the White House on Feb. 9. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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President Trump said Thursday that he was open to considering a comprehensive immigration reform plan if senators come up with a new one, but he said he opposes a 2013 proposal that passed the U.S. Senate with bipartisan support.

The president’s brief comments on the issue came up during a White House lunch meeting with a group of Democratic and Republican senators that also touched on the nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch to serve on the Supreme Court and the nation’s opioid epidemic, according to participants.

On immigration, Trump said he was open to reviewing details of the 2013 immigration bill written by a bipartisan “Gang of Eight” senators, according to Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) who recounted details of the lunch to reporters.

“He’s open to reviewing the piece of legislation,” Manchin said. “He says, ‘Well, you’ve got to start working on it again,’ and I says, ‘Absolutely we will.’ And that was encouraging.”

Most unauthorized immigrants live in urban areas, study shows

White House press secretary Sean Spicer later clarified that Trump told the senators, “If you guys want to get together to work on a solution, I’m glad to listen.” He said that Trump’s comments on immigration were “not specific to the ‘Gang of Eight,'” and that Trump opposes the 2013 bill.

Spicer also said that earlier in the meeting Trump made clear to the senators that he considers the 2013 Gang of Eight bill to be “amnesty.”

That version of events is disputed slightly by Manchin. According to the West Virginia Democrat, when Trump noted that there is no current immigration legislation under consideration on Capitol Hill, another senator in attendance, Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), mentioned the 2013 bill.

Alexander also noted that the 2013 bill had passed with 68 votes, Manchin recalled.

“Well, that sounds like something good and you all agreed, 68? What happened to it?” Trump said, according to Manchin.

“I’ll tell you exactly what happened, Mr. President,” Manchin said he told Trump. “It went to the House and [Majority Leader] Eric Cantor gets defeated. They’re crying ‘Amnesty, amnesty, amnesty’ and [House Speaker] John Boehner could not bring it back up on the floor and get a vote — that’s exactly what happened.”

At that point, Trump said, “I want to see it,” Manchin said. “So he was very anxious to see it. He says, ‘I know what amnesty is.’ And I said, ‘Sir, I don’t think you’re going to find this [is] amnesty at all.’”

A spokesman for Alexander said in an email that the senator “thinks it is appropriate to allow the President to characterize his own position. But the Senator did suggest that it is important to fix our immigration system and that the President is in a unique position to help do that.”

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), who also attended the lunch, confirmed that the group “talked a little bit about immigration reform.”

“I think he’s looking to try to find some way to broker deals where we can get things done,” Cornyn said of Trump.

Several members of the House and Senate in both parties have introduced immigration or border security bills in the opening weeks of the year, but none of them is being reviewed by committees.

The 2013 immigration bill carried a $50 billion price tag and would have doubled the number of U.S. Border Patrol agents along the U.S.-Mexico border and required the construction of 700 miles of fencing there. It also would have placed new obligations on employers, who would be required to check the legal status of all job applicants using the government’s E-Verify system.

If enacted, the bill would have set millions of eligible immigrants on a 13-year course toward achieving permanent residency status or U.S. citizenship, but it would have required them to pay thousands of dollars in fines and back taxes.

Despite broad bipartisan support in the Senate, the measure wallowed for nearly two years in the GOP-controlled House, because — as Manchin said — of Cantor’s surprise defeat in a 2014 Republican primary race.

After more than a year of delay, Cantor was preparing in June 2014 to meet with Democratic and Republican members to finalize plans for a House version of the immigration bill when he was defeated by a tea party-backed challenger, now-Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.). Nervous Republicans instantly seized on Cantor’s support for immigration reform as the reason for his defeat.

A key Senate sponsor, Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), had also withdrawn his support for the bill just hours after it was defeated in 2013 — nervous that any association with the bill would spoil his hopes of running for president in 2016.

Other issues discussed during the White House lunch included Gorsuch’s nomination, the future of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the Export-Import Bank and ideas on how to combat the nation’s prescription drug epidemic, according to Cornyn and Manchin.

Sean Sullivan contributed to this report.