Sen. Lindsey Graham is emboldened, having successfully helped broker a deal to end the government shutdown. His next task — crafting an immigration deal the president is willing to sign— has the potential to be tough, frustrating and elusive.
The South Carolina Republican is one of the key players trying to get Republicans and Democrats together to reach an immigration agreement by Feb. 8. But the Capitol is teeming with others who also see themselves as key players.
They all think they know best how to find a compromise to strengthen border security while sparing nearly 700,000 undocumented immigrants from deportation, with the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program set to end on March 5.
None of these competing factions is willing to cede ground to any one, centralized negotiating group.
“I got three groups that I’m hoping will form,” Graham told McClatchy. “One on border security, one on (Temporary Protected Status) populations ... and other is legal immigration. I’m feeling better than I’ve felt, that more and more senators understand we look stupid, and it’s not enough open government: You gotta get government to work.”
Graham said the bipartisan “gang of six” bill he formed with Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois, Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona and others, had morphed into a 25-member contingent of moderates from both parties, including Democrats such as Bill Nelson of Florida and Claire McCaskill of Missouri who face tough re-election races this year
Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska got the group together to discuss a solution to the government shutdown over the weekend and Graham said members would continue to use Collins’ office as their home base. The “subcommittees” Graham hopes to form will be comprised of this group.
“It’s growing like a weed, it’s like kudzu,” he said.
Flake was optimistic this group would be the driving force in immigration talks.
“I hope that we broaden this group enough where it is the de facto bill,” he said.
Other Republicans felt differently. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who had involved in talks with members of both parties over the weekend, said the Senate Judiciary Committee should take the lead, but he suspected an open Senate debate would resolve the issue rather than a specific group presenting a blueprint.
On the House side, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, said the House, not the Senate, would lead on the issue, and would only be considering legislation sponsored by House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va.
Goodlatte’s plan is far narrower than what many Republicans want in an immigration bill. The biggest roadblock for Democrats is its three-year, renewable status for current DACA recipients.
Jordan refused to say whether this agreement would get the necessary traction to spare DACA recipients from deportation proceedings in time for the March 5 deadline. Instead, he reiterated simply that Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., promised the Freedom Caucus a vote on the Goodlatte bill and members intended to hold their leader to his word.
“I’m confident that the Goodlatte legislation can pass the House,” Jordan said.
But there are competing forces on the House side, too. Reps. Will Hurd, R-Texas, and Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., are shopping an immigration compromise. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., is privately speaking to lawmakers from both parties in both chambers and all across the ideological spectrum. He has been invited to White House meetings on immigration legislation and continues to speak to administration staff on the issue.
Diaz-Balart said he was concerned about any strategy involving centralized discussions in one chamber, recalling the difficulty lawmakers had in 2013 when they tried unsuccessfully to compel the House to take up the Senate-passed immigration bill. It never did. Graham was a part of these efforts as well.
Ultimately, any immigration bill destined to become law must meet the criteria of the Trump administration, which in turn must meet the criteria of hardline conservatives. The Graham group doesn’t currently include any of the far-right lawmakers who might be necessary convince.
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., who has sponsored a bill that would cut legal immigration by half and has over the past few weeks been engaged in a war of words with Graham, smiled tightly and said “no comment” when asked if he would be lending his voice to Graham’s group.
Monday afternoon, Cotton attended a meeting at the White House with President Donald Trump. Joining them were Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Republican Sens. Thom Tillis of North Carolina, David Perdue of Georgia and James Lankford of Oklahoma.
These are members who have traditionally been less agreeable to the framework Graham, Flake and Durbin have been pitching, which contains some border enforcement provisions and a pathway to citizenship for current DACA beneficiaries.
Trump’s interest in meeting with the six lawmakers is a sign they might end up having some leverage in negotiations, as Graham — at one point in close contact with Trump — appears to have lost touch with the administration after the Jan. 11 Oval Office meeting where the president reportedly disparaged immigrants from “shithole countries” in Africa. Graham has since gone on to criticize members of Trump’s inner circle by name.
Graham said he was “certainly willing to talk” to administration officials, but suggested he was done having them be an integral part of the process for the time being.
“They need to give us the space,” he said.