The door to Chief of Staff John F. Kelly’s West Wing office swung open Wednesday evening and a familiar voice belted out, “Hello, everybody.” It was President Donald Trump. The White House’s soft rollout of its immigration overhaul plan was about to kick into high gear.
About 24 hours later, many congressional Democrats were condemning the White House proposal, conservative Republicans were praising it, and more moderate members of both parties remained quiet as efforts to craft a competing bill continued behind closed doors.
Here are three takeaways from the White House’s soft launch of its overhaul plan.
The White House tried in the days before it briefed reporters and congressional aides on the details of the plan to soften its message about immigration and its policy whims.
The president recently said he wanted to write legislation to help the Dreamers based on “love.” When Trump popped into the Wednesday evening session in Kelly’s office, he had a message for the roughly 700,000 people now enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program: “Tell them not to worry.” The next day, a senior administration official described the White House plan as “extremely generous.”
But behind the softer rhetoric and the offer to roughly double the population of the “Dreamers” — undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children — were clear signs that immigration hard-liners on Trump’s staff are still leading the White House effort.
That senior administration official used the kind of tough talk about immigrants that has left many Democrats wondering if they can really strike a deal with Trump and his team. The official talked at length about deporting “criminal aliens,” calling many “violent offenders” and saying undocumented immigrants were responsible for “people being horribly hurt.” Repeatedly, the senior official drew a straight line between illegal immigration and crime on U.S. citizens.
Another clear indication the hard-liners have Trump’s ear: The plan’s proposed changes to legal immigration, including its call to end the Diversity Visa lottery program and limit so-called chain migration to spouses and minor children. White House hard-liners are eager to win votes and get as much of their agenda in a final product as possible. So they have bent without breaking. That’s why the package could be called Hard-line Lite.
Watch: Immigration, Budget Talks on Hill Could Be Just That — A Lot of Talk
Race to the center
Senior administration officials who briefed reporters on the White House plan Thursday said all they want is for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to bring the White House package to the floor in early February.
It will have competition, however. And that appears just fine with administration officials.
A bipartisan group of senators is working to get a compromise measure ready for floor action at the same time. But even before the Senate on Monday had passed a stopgap funding measure that reopened the government, Trump and White House officials were working to get in front of the bipartisan group, which includes Sens. Richard J. Durbin and Lindsey Graham.
Trump angrily rejected a compromise overhaul measure those two brought to him recently, and White House officials said Thursday the duo has never proposed a single immigration change the administration could accept.
The senior administration official signaled that the White House — at least in the messaging battle — is racing the bicameral group to the political center. The official used terms like “a compromise on many fronts” and a “down the middle” proposal capable of garnering “a real groundswell of support from serious” members of both parties while describing the Trump plan.
At first blush, what the president described Wednesday evening — essentially a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers in exchange for funding for a Southern border wall — sounded a lot like what he and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer discussed last week while trying to strike an eleventh-hour deal to avert a government shutdown.
Schumer said last weekend that Trump “picked a number for the wall, and I accepted it” during their Oval Office session. He also reportedly agreed that most of the $25 billion the administration wants for it would be appropriated upfront. In exchange, Schumer and the Democrats would have gotten the DACA fix they sought to avoid a government shutdown.
Trump seemed to be describing such a plan Wednesday evening. But the longer senior administration officials talked Thursday, the clearer it became that the White House hard-liners — and their conservative allies on Capitol Hill — had won the day in crafting the White House proposal.
The goal of the Thursday afternoon session was to put down markers and try to marry a majority of House Republicans with most Senate Republicans and just enough red-state Democrats to clear a 60-vote threshold in the Senate. But, at times, and depending on which senior administration official was speaking, it had a kind of take-it-or-leave-it feel.
“Think of this as DACA,” the first senior administration official said while holding up a one-page printout of the White House’s plan, “all of this as DACA.”