WASHINGTON – Democratic leaders announced late Wednesday that they agreed with President Donald Trump to pursue a legislative deal that would protect hundreds of thousands of young undocumented immigrants from deportation and enact border security measures that don't include building a physical wall.
The president discussed options during a dinner at the White House with Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., that also included talks on tax reform, infrastructure and trade. Trump has showed signs of shifting strategy to cross the aisle and work with Democrats in the wake of the high-profile failures by Republicans to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
Trump, however, appeared to send shifting signals Thursday on how far he would go with Democrats over signature issues such as the border wall and the fate of so-called undocumented "dreamers."
In a series of tweets, Trump wrote that "no deal" was made on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, an Obama-era program that has allowed 690,000 dreamers to work and go to school without fear of deportation. He further wrote that agreements on "massive border security" would have to accompany any new DACA provisions, and insisted that "the WALL … will continue to be built."
But he again put lawmakers on notice that he favors some protections for the young dreamers.
"Does anybody really want to throw out good, educated and accomplished young people who have jobs, some serving in the military?" Trump wrote in back-to-back tweets. Really! … They have been in our country for many years through no fault of their own – brought in by parents at young age. Plus BIG border security."
Trump tweeted, "The WALL, which is already under construction in the form of new renovation of old and existing fences and walls, will continue to be built."
A possible alliance between Trump and the Democrats on immigration would represent a major political gamble for a president who made promises of tougher border control policies the centerpiece of his campaign and pledged to build a "big, beautiful wall" along the U.S.-Mexico border. A majority of Republicans, especially in the House, have long opposed offering legal status, and a path to citizenship, to the nation's more than 11 million undocumented immigrants.
In a sign of the potential trouble for the president, Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, an immigration hard-liner and early Trump supporter, wrote that if reports of a potential immigration deal are accurate, the president's "base is blown up, destroyed, irreparable, and disillusioned beyond repair. No promise is credible."
Trump has vacillated over the fate of the dreamers, who have lived in the country illegally since they were children. Under mounting pressure from the right, Trump moved two weeks ago to begin dismantling the program.
In announcing the decision, the president made clear that he expected Congress to pursue a plan to protect the DACA recipients, offering a six-month delay until their two-year work permits begin to expire in March.
In a statement, the White House described the meeting as "constructive" and said the administration "looks forward to continuing these conversations with leadership on both sides of the aisle."
Congressional aides familiar with the exchange said that Trump and the party leaders agreed to move quickly on legislation to protect dreamers, though aides did not disclose whether they agreed that the goal should be for dreamers to eventually be offered a path to citizenship.
In a statement, Schumer and Pelosi said they had "a very productive meeting at the White House with the President. The discussion focused on DACA. We agreed to enshrine the protections of DACA into law quickly, and to work out a package of border security, excluding the wall, that's acceptable to both sides."
In a letter to her Democratic colleagues in the House, Pelosi said she hoped the deal could be done "in a matter of weeks."
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders confirmed that DACA and border security were discussed, but she said excluding border wall funding from a package deal was "certainly not agreed to."
Earlier in the day, Trump held a bipartisan meeting with a group of House members. Afterward, several Democrats involved in those talks said the president also had made clear that he did not expect border wall funding to be included in a legislative deal on the dreamers. They said Trump was not giving up on the wall but that he emphasized the money could be added to another bill, though he was not specific.
"He said, the wall doesn't have to be necessary," Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, told reporters at the White House. "He said we're going to add [wall funding] somewhere else. … We've told him we don't want to tie this [together]. He said, 'DACA, we're going to do it early. We're going to do some kind of border security.' He brought up the wall. He said that doesn't have to be on this DACA bill."
Democrats, and some Republicans, have resisted funding for a wall, saying such a structure is not worth the billions of dollars it would cost.
Breitbart, the conservative news outlet headed by former Trump adviser Stephen Bannon, called reports of an immigration deal a "full-fledged cave" by Trump on "amnesty" for the dreamers.
Sens. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and Lindsey O. Graham, R-S.C., have introduced legislation, called the Dream Act, that would offer dreamers a path to citizenship. The number of undocumented immigrants that would potentially be covered by that bill, however, is expected to be far larger than the number of those who have DACA protections, a prospect that would probably engender more Republican opposition.
Cuellar said that he told Trump the Dream Act has sufficient bipartisan support to pass and that the White House should be pushing for a vote. Trump, Cuellar said, told the group: "Oh, it will be on the floor."
But Trump also instructed Democrats to consider tougher restrictions on legal immigration, including provisions of a bill called the Raise Act, introduced by Republican Sens. Tom Cotton, Ark., and David Perdue, Ga., which would slash legal immigration levels by half over the coming decade. Immigrant rights groups are strongly opposed to such measures, but Trump endorsed that legislation during an appearance with the GOP senators at the White House last month.
And Republican leaders are already wary of the spending agreement Trump brokered with Democrats last week on a three-month spending plan to raise the debt ceiling and keep the government funded.
Pelosi and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., met earlier Wednesday to begin discussing the broad parameters of the forthcoming immigration debate. Ryan's team signaled that despite the administration's eagerness to quickly seal the deal, it will take awhile.
AshLee Strong, Ryan's spokeswoman, said that regarding the plight of the dreamers, the speaker "reiterated that any solution needs to address border security and enforcement, which are the root causes of the problem. Discussions among the Republican conference will continue in the coming weeks."
Ryan is already facing growing pressure from House conservatives who have begun to question his leadership and have even floated names of possible replacement as speaker. An agreement between Trump and Democrats on a bill to protect dreamers could potentially put Ryan in the position of having to decide whether to bring it for a vote with the prospects that it might pass with more Democratic support than among the GOP.
Brian Murphy contributed to this report.