Wall Street Journal
By Laura Meckler and Kristina Peterson
December 20, 2017
Bipartisan talks over legislation to legalize young undocumented immigrants are gaining steam, key senators said, but top Democrats who have pushed for quick action said any fix won’t happen by year’s end.
The immigration debate is one of many matters involved in year-end talks over a bill to keep the government funded. While most lawmakers have said they expect Congress will end up passing a bill to provide funding through Jan. 19, some House Republicans on Wednesday night raised objections that the bill wouldn’t fund the military for the full fiscal year, which runs through September.
Government funding expires at 12:01 a.m. Saturday.
Republicans have long said immigration should be dealt with outside of the funding bills, and this week Sen. Jeff Flake (R., Ariz.) said he had secured a promise for a Senate floor vote in January on Dreamers legislation being negotiated by a bipartisan group of senators. GOP leaders confirmed that plan.
“If negotiators reach an agreement on these matters by the end of January, I will bring it to the Senate floor for a free-standing vote,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) said in a statement.
Mr. Flake said in an interview that the negotiators were moving closer to an agreement that would legalize young people living in the U.S. illegally who were brought here as children, though the scope of who would be covered is still being negotiated, he said.
President Donald Trump in September ended the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, that protected them, but gave Congress six months to pass legislation before protections begin to expire.
Mr. Flake and another negotiator, Sen. James Lankford (R., Okla.) said the talks have centered on including border-security measures and something addressing “chain migration,” or the ability of citizens to sponsor family members for green cards.
Mr. Flake said that negotiators are discussing limiting the ability of the Dreamers—whom the bill would legalize—to sponsor future immigrants. Mr. Lankford said that was one option, but he cautioned they can’t give one set of citizens rights that others don’t enjoy. He said other options are also under consideration, short of a broad curtailing of family-based immigration rights. Both senators said they expect provisions endorsing some measure of fencing on the southwest border, something Democrats have so far opposed.
But Mr. Flake said other Trump priorities, such as eliminating the diversity visa lottery and making changes to the asylum system, aren’t likely to be included. “I think a lot of those are going to be beyond the scope of this bill,” he said.
A spokesman for Sen. Dick Durbin (D., Ill.), who is leading the Democrats in the talks, had no comment on those details.
Top Democrats had considered using leverage they have over the spending bill to force Republicans to include protections for the so-called Dreamers. But in a meeting Tuesday with leading immigrant advocates, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Mr. Durbin all said the Dreamer issue wouldn’t be dealt with this year, according to three people in the room.
The leaders explained that Democrats didn’t want to be blamed for possibly triggering a government shutdown just before Christmas, and that there was a better chance of success in January, these people said. Democratic leaders haven’t said that publicly.
Also Tuesday, the bipartisan group of senators met with White House Chief of Staff John Kelly to discuss what border-security measures might be included in an immigration package. Mr. Kelly promised to provide them with a detailed list of priorities, people familiar with the meeting said.
Several senators and Senate aides said that this represented stepped-up White House involvement that boded well for an agreement.
“I’m glad they’re engaged,” said Sen. Michael Bennet (D., Colo.), who attended the Tuesday meeting with Mr. Kelly. “We need the people that are thinking about border security in the administration to be part of the conversation.”
But a White House official disputed that the meeting this week was significant, saying Mr. Trump has met with many lawmakers and has made clear he wants a robust set new immigration restrictions to accompany any legalization program.
The outlines described by Mr. Flake are likely to be opposed by more-conservative lawmakers. Sen. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) said in an interview that he wants new restrictions on the ability of all citizens to sponsor future family members for immigration, not just the Dreamers.
“It’s hard to imagine legislation that doesn’t end chain migration that I could support,” he said.
Any Senate deal is unlikely to gain traction in the House, unless Mr. Trump supports it and helps sell it to the conservatives who have taken a tougher stance on immigration. Stephen Miller, a Trump aide who takes a hard line on the issue and wields influence with the president, wasn’t part of the Kelly meeting.
Progress resolving the immigration stalemate could ease the spending negotiations. On Wednesday, GOP leaders tried to move closer to an agreement to keep the government funded, though it remained on shaky ground Wednesday evening.
House GOP leaders proposed bringing to the House floor on Thursday a spending bill keeping the government running through Jan. 19, but faced opposition from Republicans who wanted to fund the military for the full year.
The House is likely to vote separately on an $81 billion package of disaster aid for states and territories hit by this year’s destructive storms, aides said. The spending bill is expected to include a short-term extension of an expiring surveillance law and a patch to help states running low on funds for the Children’s Health Insurance Program.
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