By KEN THOMAS and ALAN FRAM
WASHINGTON (AP) — Seeking a bipartisan compromise to avoid a government shutdown, President Donald Trump suggested Tuesday that an immigration deal could be reached in two phases — first by dealing with young immigrants and border security with what he called a “bill of love,” then by making comprehensive changes that have long eluded Congress.
Trump held a lengthy meeting with Republican and Democratic lawmakers seeking a solution for hundreds of thousands of young people who were brought to the U.S. as children and are living here illegally. Trump last year ended the Obama Administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which shielded more than 700,000 people from deportation and gave then the right to work legally. He gave Congress until March to find a remedy.
The president, congressional Republicans and Democrats expressed optimism for a deal just 10 days before a deadline for a government shutdown. Trump expressed willingness to be flexible in finding an agreement as Democrats warned that the lives of hundreds of thousands of immigrants hung in the balance.
“I think my positions are going to be what the people in this room come up with,” Trump said during a Cabinet Room meeting with a bipartisan group of 20 lawmakers, adding, “I am very much reliant upon the people in this room.”
A group of journalists observed the meandering meeting for an extraordinary length of time — about 55 minutes — which involved Trump seeking advice from Democrats and Republicans alike in a freewheeling exchange on the contentious issue.
Trump at one point suggested bringing back “earmarks,” or money for pet projects requested by lawmakers, as a way to bring the two parties together and avoid divisions.
The president said he would insist on the construction of a border security wall as part of an agreement involving young immigrants, but he said Congress could then pursue a comprehensive immigration overhaul in the second phase.
House Republicans said they planned to soon introduce legislation to deal with border security and young immigrants. Trump said, “it should be a bill of love.”
Conservatives quickly sounded alarms about a process that would lead to a comprehensive agreement on immigration, a path that has long been anathema to many rank-and-file Republicans.
Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., leader of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus, said in a text message after the White House meeting that he opposed the approach Trump suggested.
“Generally I’m opposed to a two-step process because history would indicate the second step never happens,” Meadows said.
Asked if his group could stop such a plan if it starts moving in Congress, Meadows said, “It will be up to the American people to stop it. Their voice has consistently been the power by the Freedom Caucus’ ability to influence public policy.”
The president appeared to acknowledge the political pitfalls of pursuing a more permanent deal, telling the lawmakers, “I’ll take all the heat you want. But you are not that far away from comprehensive immigration reform.”
After the meeting, lawmakers from both parties appeared divided over the basic definition of Trump’s bottom-line demand for a wall on the country’s southern border.
Democratic House Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland said his party was opposed to GOP calls for $18 billion in funding to build the wall.
“It was clear in the meeting that wall did not mean some structure,” he said of Trump’s remarks, noting the president also mentioned fencing, cameras and other security measures for the border.
Republicans were adamant that Trump “means the wall,” but that Trump acknowledges that the resulting structure does not have to cover the entire length of the border, because of geographic barriers. Exactly how many miles of wall the president would want called for put in an immigration bill would be subject to negotiation, said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy.
Democrats and Republicans are scheduled to resume negotiations on Wednesday.
McCarthy said lawmakers in both parties agreed to constrain the immediate immigration push to four priorities: DACA, securing the border, and dealing family-based “chain migration” and the visa lottery program.
The negotiations over immigration pit a president who made the construction of a border wall a central piece of his 2016 campaign against congressional Democrats who have sought to preserve the Obama Administration protections for young immigrants.
The discussions on immigration were taking place in the aftermath of the president’s public blow-up with former campaign and White House adviser Steve Bannon, one of the architects of Trump’s calls for a border wall along the U.S. Southern border.
Bannon’s break with Trump has raised concerns among some conservative Republicans that the president might reach an agreement with Democrats on the young “Dreamers” without getting enough in return on border security and significant changes to the immigration system.
Trump said as recently as last weekend that he wouldn’t sign legislation concerning the Dreamers unless Congress agreed to an overhaul of the legal immigration system. He told reporters Saturday at Camp David that any deal must include an overhaul of the family-based immigration system as well as an end to the diversity visa lottery, which draws immigrants from certain parts of a world.
That would be in addition to Trump’s winning money for a southern border wall and added border security. But in the meeting, he showed willingness to compromise with Democrats, whose votes are needed in the narrowly divided Senate.
“The president exhibited, I thought, quite a bit of flexibility when the cameras weren’t there in terms of what we do in this phase and the next phase — and an acknowledgment that a lot of things we want to do are going to be part of a comprehensive bill but not now,” said Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., one of the attendees.