WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of senators working to resolve the status of young undocumented immigrants, border security and restrictions on legal migration has offered an opening bid on an agreement and is seeking support from fellow senators and President Donald Trump.
Six senators working on immigration issues “have an agreement in principle. We’re shopping it to our colleagues,” Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., told reporters on Thursday afternoon.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., another member of the group, added that “we have answered the call” of Trump, who brought a cross-section of Democrats and Republicans together at the White House this week and called on them to reach a deal he can sign.
In addition to Flake and Graham, the group included Sens. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., Michael Bennet, D-Colo., Robert Menende, D-N.J., and Cory Gardner, R-Colo., all of whom have worked on immigration issues for several years and hail from states with large immigrant populations.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters that there is no deal yet on immigration, “However, we still think we can get there.”
The fast-moving developments included a hastily-arranged Oval Office meeting with Trump, where Graham and Durbin presented details of their plan. The surprise move angered senior Republican leaders and conservatives who are eager to fulfill Trump’s campaign pledges on immigration and control floor debate on the issue. But any attempt to pass immigration and border security legislation will require Democratic support in the closely-divided Senate.
Graham wouldn’t say how the president responded, but said that coming up with bipartisan support in the coming days “will matter to the president.”
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Flake and Graham said they would not be publicly discussing details of their plan until they share it with colleagues. In a joint statement, the group said, “We are now working to build support for that deal in Congress.”
But Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., an immigration hard-liner and ally of Trump who attended the Oval Office meeting, said that the bipartisan plan “is unacceptable” because of how it deals with family-based migration policy, a practice that conservatives deride as “chain migration,” and on ending the diversity lottery program that grants visas to 55,000 people from countries with low immigration each year.
“It doesn’t end chain migration,” Cotton said of the bipartisan plan. “It merely delays it for an extremely small class of persons. On the diversity lottery, it simply takes all those visas and gives them away to other people for no rhyme or reason, it doesn’t just end the diversity lottery.”
Cotton added that the group’s border security proposal “doesn’t give near enough resources to meet the president’s demands.”
Told of Cotton’s public criticisms, Graham snapped back: “Sen. Cotton can present his proposal. We presented ours. I’m not negotiating with Sen. Cotton and let me know when Sen. Cotton has a proposal that gets a Democrat. I’m dying to look at it.”
Flake added that “I don’t think we’ll get all Republicans - I never thought that.”
The breakthrough comes just days before a spending deadline that most Democrats are using as leverage for an immigration agreement.
Government funding expires on Jan. 19, and Democrats say they will support legislation to keep the government operating only if the legislation includes plans to protect “dreamers.” But the talks have deadlocked for weeks amid Republican demands that any changes in the young immigrants’ legal status be coupled with changes in border security and some legal immigration programs.
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Complicating the talks, Republicans released a flurry of new legislation in recent days designed to placate concerns of conservatives wary of a potential bipartisan deal - and to address the fate of hundreds of thousands of other people living in the country under temporary legal protection.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, and Reps. Raúl Labrador, R-Idaho, and Martha McSally, R-Ariz., on Wednesday unveiled a conservative plan that would grant dreamers an opportunity to apply for a legal residency that would be renewed every three years. Democrats and some Republicans reject such a plan.
The bill also would authorize construction of border walls and fencing; allow federal immigration and security agencies to hire at least 10,000 new agents; end the diversity lottery program; end the ability of new U.S. citizens to legally move family members into the United States; withhold federal funding from cities that refuse to help federal agencies enforce immigration laws; and intensify use of the E-Verify system to check an employee’s immigration status.
The proposals have been previously rejected by other Republicans, who say that such a comprehensive proposal could not pass the badly fractured Congress and that the bill’s border security measures are too aggressive. Privately, aides to GOP leaders say the bill would not be able to pass in the House.
Meanwhile, Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., whose Denver-area district is being closely targeted by Democrats this year, introduced a bill to grant permanent legal residency to hundreds of thousands of people from El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua and other countries granted residency through the Temporary Protection Status program.
The Washington Post’s David Nakamura, Josh Dawsey and Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.