Politics & Government

Accustomed to Trump changing his mind, the Senate takes his embrace of citizenship in stride

Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., is interviewed by reporters following final votes for the week, at the Capitol in Washington Thursday. President Donald Trump has given Congress until March to come up with a plan to protect the nearly 700,000 young people who had been protected from deportation and given the right to work legally in the country under the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.
Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., is interviewed by reporters following final votes for the week, at the Capitol in Washington Thursday. President Donald Trump has given Congress until March to come up with a plan to protect the nearly 700,000 young people who had been protected from deportation and given the right to work legally in the country under the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. AP

President Donald Trump is making a more specific, renewed push for a path to citizenship for young, illegal immigrants, but wary senators suspect it won't be his last offer.

They’ve seen grand pronouncements from Trump on immigration before, only to see them fade or even evaporate within hours. So few took Trump’s Wednesday proposal and Thursday’s plans as the final word.

Initial reaction fell squarely along partisan lines. Republicans, more accustomed to finessing the chief executive’s propensity for surprise now that they’ve lived with it for a year, put a positive spin on Trump’s unexpected Wednesday declaration to reporters that triggered this latest round of talk.

They said his impromptu remarks that he wants to offer the “incentive” of citizenship to illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children is a sign he's a great negotiator, since that Democrats largely support the provision.

“He’s shown great willingness to be open there,” said Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C. The senator noted that Trump’s embrace of citizenship — which goes further than many conservatives want to go — is but one element of the sort of immigration package that many Republicans are seeking.

“We’ve got to talk about border security, chain migration and the visa lottery, too,” Tillis said.

Democrats countered that while encouraged, everything can change with Trump.

"The White House has proven unreliable and wildly unpredictable," said Senate Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., charging that “every time the president moves forward on one thing, his staff pulls him back and undoes what he said.”

The most positive notes came from members of both parties who have been trying to broker an immigration deal.

Trump’s sympathy to a pathway to permanency for the young immigrants after they’ve spent 10 or 12 years in the country is a “major breakthrough,” argued Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who has been leading Senate talks to find a way to prevent deportation of the young immigrants protected under the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

Graham brushed off concern that Trump would later change his mind, saying, “You know, for somebody in Congress to call somebody else unreliable would be a stretch.”

But to get the 60 Senate votes to get a plan approved — a total that would require nine Democxrats if all 51 Republicans stuck together — Trump needs to convince the more skeptical partisans. Republicans shouldn’t be tough to get. Democrats pose a problem.

There already is considerable support among Senate Republicans to allow for citizenship for the young immigrants, said Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., one of the Senate’s leading advocates for immigration restrictions.

“If it helps the Democrats understand that he and most Republicans are committed to a generous and humane but responsible solution, then that’s helpful,” Cotton said.

Though many hardline conservatives are opposed to a path to legalization, Cotton said the children were brought to the country “before the age of accountability.” He added, “I think you can distinguish them from their parents or other illegal immigrants who made the decision to come here themselves.”

Democrats remained skeptical. The Democratic National Committee mocked Trump’s view, with spokesman Francisco Pelayo saying “No one believes Donald Trump when he says he’s doing a ‘great job’ fixing a problem he created by making his cruel decision to rescind DACA.”

Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said he was encouraged by Trump’s embrace of eventual citizenship for the young immigrants. But he said lawmakers have complained that Trump’s changing stances makes their lives more difficult.

“If the president wants to be constructive ... he should take a clear position, but not change it within a matter of hours,” Coons said. He suggested Trump take a lesson from last week’s three-day government shutdown, which was resolved in the Senate, largely with Trump on the sidelines.

“The less he tweets and the less he jerks the wheel of the bus left and right, the more likely it is we will actually accomplish the goal,” Coons said.

The biggest problem any Trump plan could face is with hardcore conservatives.

“I do not believe we should be granting a path to citizenship to anybody here illegally,” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said. “Doing so is inconsistent with the promises we made to the men and women who elected us.”

And the prospect for approval is much more difficult in the House, where conservatives have more clout and are firmly opposed to citizenship for anyone who arrived in the U.S. illegally.

"What we don't want is to encourage more Dreamers and parents who are willing to get to America at all costs,” said Rep. Richard Hudson, R-N.C., one of 77 co-sponsors of a conservative House immigration measure that would allow beneficiaries to receive a three-year renewable legal status.

Hudson said he doesn’t want a path to citizenship for the so-called Dreamers, but instead "some legal status that recognizes they didn't come through the proper status to get here.” But, Hudson said, he is willing to see just what Trump wants before deciding — a factor that could be critical to many House conservatives.

Emily Cadei, Brian Murphy, Emma Dumain, Alex Daugherty and Andrea Drusch contributed to this report.

Lesley Clark: 202-383-6054, @lesleyclark

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