A widely anticipated agreement between President Trump and top Democratic leaders to work on legislation to protect hundreds of thousands of young undocumented immigrants is in doubt nearly three weeks after it was announced, putting the legal status of "dreamers" at risk ahead of a spring deadline.
Republican lawmakers who dined with the president Monday night cast doubt Tuesday on Trump's talks with "Chuck and Nancy" — Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — about plans to protect eligible children of undocumented immigrants and make changes to the nation's border security. Trump and the Democratic leaders agreed to work on legislation that would couple plans to protect dreamers with legislation to bolster U.S.-Mexico border security, but not include the construction of more border wall. But no specific items were agreed to, and Democratic leaders say they are still waiting for Trump to submit ideas on how Congress should proceed.
Hanging in the balance is the legal status of roughly 690,000 dreamers currently protected by Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an Obama-era program that Trump last month decided to end, though the president gave Congress six months to come up with a solution on immigration. Failure to act also would rob Congress of a chance to strike a bipartisan agreement on a key part of the protracted immigration debate at a time when Americans are fed up with the lack of progress on Capitol Hill on health care, taxes and other matters.
Republican lawmakers, wary of Trump's cutting deals with top Democrats — especially on an issue as contentious as immigration — sought Tuesday to discount talk of a bipartisan agreement. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who attended Monday's fish dinner at the White House, dismissed as "spin" the idea that Schumer and Pelosi had a deal with Trump.
"President Trump said there's no deal, [White House Chief of Staff John] Kelly, who attended that dinner, said there's no deal. So there has to be a negotiation that occurs between the House and the Senate," Cotton said.
Cotton also said that Trump agreed with the lawmakers that any agreement to protect dreamers should apply only to the roughly 800,000 people who have ever been protected by DACA — not to all undocumented immigrants' children, who number more than 1 million.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who also was at the dinner, said that Trump urged Republicans not to rush into a debate on immigration.
"The first thing he said is he wants to do tax reform first," McCarthy said. "He doesn't want to mix them together."
Republican leaders are hoping to complete work on an overhaul of the tax system by the end of the year, a timetable already facing backlash from some Republicans, who are concerned about details of the plan.
But Cotton disputed McCarthy's description, saying that "we didn't discuss concrete timelines." Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), who also attended the dinner, said, "No decisions were made." He added that he expected that the White House could send proposals on how to address the issue as early as this week.
The White House would not comment on the dinner with Republican lawmakers but said in a statement Tuesday that Trump "has made clear he wants Congress to act and pass responsible immigration reform, which will include his priorities of massive border security and interior enforcement." Aides also would not say when or whether Trump's ideas will be shared with lawmakers.
Schumer told reporters that he has no reason to believe Trump is backing off his pledge to work with Democrats on immigration, which he agreed to do during a Sept. 13 White House dinner over Chinese food.
"If the president is changing his view, he should tell us," Schumer told reporters Tuesday, adding later, "If they want to back off, let them tell us."
Trump has not met in person with Schumer or Pelosi since their September dinner, but the president did speak with Schumer by phone Thursday about the future of DACA and other matters, according to aides familiar with the call. Pelosi and Schumer have spoken several times by phone with Kelly about the matter, the aides said, but they declined to share details of the calls.
The White House's delay in sharing immigration proposals has caused Democrats and Republicans to use familiar procedural tactics to jump-start an immigration debate and to reintroduce bills that have failed before.
House Democrats last week launched an attempt to force an up-or-down vote on the Dream Act, a bill that would make some DACA recipients eventually eligible for citizenship. The 194 House Democrats have signed a discharge petition that would force a vote on the legislation. The bill is co-sponsored by five Republicans, but Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) is the only Republican to sign the petition, which requires a majority of House members to force a vote.
At a hearing Tuesday about the future of DACA, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said that any agreement to help dreamers should include changes in border security, "and by that, I don't mean a wall. Of course, tactical infrastructure like fencing is a part of the answer, but border security is more than that."
Grassley also renewed calls to make the E-Verify employment verification system mandatory for all employers — an issue that was a large part of a bipartisan immigration agreement that passed the Senate in 2013 but sputtered in the House.
Cornyn said at the hearing that any agreement to help dreamers should include conservative proposals to tackle security concerns. He cited a bill he has written that would spend $15 billion over four years to rebuild the existing wall, hire more U.S. Border Patrol personnel and build new fencing, but not fulfill Trump's campaign pledge to build a wall along the entire length of the border.
"I don't think we're capable of passing a comprehensive immigration bill," Cornyn said, suggesting that Congress should instead work "step by step" on the issue.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) told Cornyn that Democrats are willing to work with Republicans on certain border security measures, but "I can't subscribe to a litany of possibilities here. There are some who have saved up every idea they've had on immigration and want to slap it onto the Dream Act."
Schumer told reporters that any attempt to include E-Verify or to boost the Border Patrol beyond the actual southern border would spoil the agreement with Trump.
During the hearing, officials from the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice repeatedly declined to take firm positions on the Dream Act and related legislation. But under questioning by Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.), Michael Dougherty, a DHS assistant secretary for border and immigration issues, said, "Under a rational bill, these individuals would be allowed to become lawful permanent residents."
Schumer and Durbin later seized on the statement as a sign of Trump's support for the Dream Act's eventual passage.
Witnesses also that the administration would not be extending a Thursday deadline for eligible DACA recipients to renew their status and receive another two years of legal protections. Of the roughly 154,200 people whose status is set to expire by March, roughly 48,000 have not applied to renew their status, the department said in a statement.
Mike DeBonis and Jenna Johnson contributed to this report.