Things were getting heated on Capitol Hill on immigration even before President Donald Trump asked lawmakers in a closed-door meeting Thursday why the US was bringing in immigrants from "shithole" countries into the US.
Republicans have been engaged in a showdown for days over which corner of their party has Trump's ear in negotiations over the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program expiring in March. With Trump's vulgar comments, moderates may be growing increasingly nervous that they're losing in the fight to pull Trump to the center.
Moderate lawmakers were feeling already feeling the squeeze in immigration talks
Conservatives balked at the proposal from the "Group of Six"
On Thursday afternoon, a bipartisan group of six lawmakers led by Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Dick Durbin of Illinois, had finally agreed on a plan to shield hundreds of thousands of immigrants with DACA -- the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals program -- from being deported. But their victory -- first announced by Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona -- was short-lived.
The details hadn't even yet been shopped around to their colleagues when conservatives started balking at the agreement and the only man that mattered in the debate -- Trump -- sent his party back to the drafting table.
Ready to brief Trump on their negotiations, Durbin and Graham traveled to the White House Thursday thinking they would be meeting privately with the President, a source familiar told CNN. When they arrived, they discovered that several other more hardline immigration hawks, including Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, would also be in the room. The surprise was first reported by The Washington Post.
A source described at one point Durbin explained to Trump a proposal to end the visa lottery in exchange for Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for countries such as Haiti. CNN reported that Trump responded, according to a source familiar with the meeting: "Why do we need more Haitians? Take them out."
Cotton told reporters when he returned to Capitol Hill after the White House meeting, "There is no deal."
The bipartisan group had spent months meeting and crafting their bill and while it was long-expected to find resistance among restrictionist immigration types, more moderate Republicans on immigration had tried to make the case to the President that it was -- Flake put it -- the only game in town. Unlike health care or tax reform, the immigration bill would only pass with 60 votes, Flake and Graham repeated. That meant that negotiating with Democrats and finding a bill that could win their support wasn't an option.
"I don't think we'll get all Republicans," Flake said Thursday. "I never thought we would."
But the bipartisan "Group of Six," which included many of the same players that negotiated the hard right's much maligned 2013 immigration bill -- was being squeezed even before Thursday.
"Just because the Gang of Six or gang of whatever agrees to something, it's going to have to be vetted by the other members," Louisiana's Sen. John Kennedy, a Republican, warned earlier this week. "There's a lot of folks who haven't spoken up yet."
In the days leading up to their announced bipartisan agreement, some conservatives were more public and pointed about their doubts about the Group of Six's effort.
Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz told CNN flatly he couldn't imagine supporting anything the group came up with.
"Passing an amnesty bill that continues chain migration and has only fig-leaf token efforts and border security would be a serious mistake," Cruz said.
And, the Senate's Republican Whip John Cornyn announced the No. 2s in the House and the Senate, including Durbin, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and the Democratic House Whip Steny Hoyer would take the lead in negotiations rather than the bipartisan group.
"We are not going to default to existing groups, they were too many groups to count and they were basically getting nowhere so that's why, I think, the need to move to this level," Cornyn told reporters earlier in the week about the new power structure.
The Republicans, however, are finding themselves in a precarious position. The President gave them a deadline of March 5 and they can't just pass an immigration bill without Democrats. They don't have a filibuster-proof majority. Not to mention, many of the most conservative members may never get comfortable with any bill that gives hundreds of thousands of immigrants -- even if they entered the country as children -- a path to legalization or citizenship, something some members perceive as amnesty.
And, even if a bill was voted on and passed the Senate, legislation still faces long odds in the Republican-controlled House where there the differences between Democrats and Republicans are even greater. House Speaker Paul Ryan has far more hardline immigration hawks in his conference. Democratic House Leader Nancy Pelosi, meanwhile, has far more members who are opposed to any kind of deal that set back the parents of DACA recipients either by limiting chain migration or other mechanisms.
Still, it's unclear how Trump's comments will affect the negotiations for now.
A person familiar told CNN that the language was salty on both sides Thursday, but added it shouldn't be interpreted as poisoning the changes for a deal.
"It's a negotiation process," this person said.
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