White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly on Feb. 6 said he doesn’t expect President Trump to extend DACA beyond a March 5 deadline if Congress fails to reach an immigration deal. (The Washington Post)

White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly said Tuesday that President Trump is not expected to extend a March 5 deadline for when legal protection and work permits begin to expire for young immigrants known as “dreamers” — raising the stakes for lawmakers struggling to reach a solution.

“I doubt very much” that Trump would extend the program, Kelly told reporters during an impromptu interview at the U.S. Capitol.

He told reporters that he was “not so sure this president has the authority to extend it” because the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) that protects roughly 690,000 undocumented immigrants was not based on law.

Kelly’s comments come as lawmakers are trying to craft a plan to grant permanent legal protections to dreamers and resolve other aspects of the immigration system. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Tuesday that a debate on immigration policy will begin once a new short-term spending agreement is passed this week.

White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly on Feb. 6 told reporters that President Trump is “the champion” of DACA recipients. (Erica Werner/The Washington Post)

“I’m going to structure it in such a way that’s fair to everyone,” he told reporters. “And in the Senate, on those rare occasions when we have these open debates, whoever gets to 60 [votes] wins.”

Any immigration legislation will require the support of at least 60 senators to clear procedural hurdles and earn final passage — putting a premium on bipartisan ideas that can prevail in the closely divided chamber.

McConnell urged senators with ideas on the immigration issue to quickly draft them into legislation, because “there’s a good chance by February the 8th it’ll be time to go forward.”

With the clock ticking, Kelly also said that he would recommend against Trump’s signing a short-term extension of DACA approved by lawmakers.

“What makes them act is pressure,” Kelly said of Congress.

But some Republicans said that a short-term extension may be their only choice.

“I hope we don’t end up there. But I’m not for ending up with no solution, either,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), a lead GOP negotiator on immigration, told reporters.

White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly on Feb. 6 told reporters that hundreds of thousands of “dreamers” who were eligible for DACA didn’t sign up because they were “too afraid” or “too lazy.” (Erica Werner/The Washington Post)

With lawmakers deadlocked, Sen. Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), the top Democrat in talks, accused Republicans of stalling.

Durbin said that his party is “willing to support a broadly unpopular and partisan proposal — the wall — in exchange for a broadly popular and bipartisan proposal” that would legalize the status of dreamers. “But the president will not take yes for an answer.”

The Trump administration announced the end of DACA in September, giving lawmakers until early March to enact a permanent solution. But a federal court last month ordered the Department of Homeland Security to continue accepting applications for DACA, prompting some lawmakers to say that they would have more time to resolve the issue. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is appealing the court ruling, and unless higher courts rule on the legality of the program, the DHS will be required to continue renewing DACA status for recipients even after the March 5 deadline.

On Tuesday, Trump tweeted that “nearly 7 in 10 Americans support an immigration reform package that includes DACA, fully secures the border, ends chain migration & cancels the visa lottery. If D’s oppose this deal, they aren’t serious about DACA-they just want open borders.”

Further roiling the debate, Trump told lawmakers and administration officials at a White House event focused on the crime threat posed by undocumented immigrants he would “love to see a shutdown if we don’t get this stuff taken care of.”

Last month, Trump unveiled a four-part immigration plan and used his State of the Union address to endorse legalizing the status of 1.8 million dreamers — more than the actual number of young immigrants currently protected by DACA.

Commenting on Trump’s endorsement of legalizing a larger pool of immigrants, Kelly said it was “stunning and no one expected it.”

“There are 690,000 official DACA registrants, and the president sent over what amounts to be two and a half times that number, to 1.8 million,” he said. “The difference between [690,000] and 1.8 million were the people that some would say were too afraid to sign up, others would say were too lazy to get off their asses, but they didn’t sign up.”

Kelly said he could not believe that lawmakers would vote against Trump’s immigration plan, given how “generous” it is.

“If before the champions of DACA were members on one side of the aisle, I would say right now the champion of all people who are DACA is Donald Trump — but you would never write that,” Kelly said.

About 800,000 have applied for and received DACA protections since the program began in 2012. The nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute has estimated that at least 1.3 million people are immediately eligible for the program.

Advocates of immigration reform have said in the past that many undocumented immigrants who were brought into the country as children did not apply for DACA because they did not meet the age or educational requirements, could not afford the application fees ranging from $400 to $500, or feared sharing personal information with the federal government.

On Tuesday, Trump signed a presidential memorandum establishing a National Vetting Center (NVC) within the Department of Homeland Security to centralize screening of foreign visitors, refugees and others, as well as those caught living illegally in the United States.

The vetting center will merge different DHS databases and tools for conducting background checks, according to the memorandum. Its director will be appointed by the secretary of the Department Homeland Security, and senior officials from the State Department and the attorney general’s office will serve as deputy directors at the center.

“The Federal Government’s current vetting efforts are ad hoc, which impedes our ability to keep up with today’s threats,” the White House said in a statement. “The NVC will better coordinate these activities in a central location, enabling officials to further leverage critical intelligence and law enforcement information to identify terrorists, criminals, and other nefarious actors trying to enter and remain within our country.”

Trump has called for “extreme vetting” of visitors from majority-Muslim countries, and the Supreme Court ruled in December that his administration can enforce its broad “ban” on travelers from Iran, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Chad and North Korea, as well as some categories of travelers from Venezuela.

Mike DeBonis, Nick Miroff and David Nakamura contributed to this report.