U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) walks back to his office after voting for a continuing resolution and end a three-day government shutdown on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., January 22, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis
WASHINGTON - 26 January 2018: Senators from both parties said they were encouraged on Thursday about the prospects for bipartisan immigration talks after U.S. President Donald Trump said he was open to a path to citizenship for immigrants brought illegally to the country as children.
But in a sign of difficult negotiations ahead, some conservative Republicans rejected a pathway to citizenship and lawmakers in both parties questioned Trump's commitment to protecting the young immigrants known as "Dreamers" from deportation, a top Democratic priority.
"I'm optimistic these ongoing negotiations will lead to results," Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said of talks involving a group of about three dozen senators trying to hammer out a deal to protect about 700,000 Dreamers from deportation.
Trump, whose hardline immigration stance was a key part of his 2016 presidential campaign, said in September he was ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program created by Democratic predecessor Barack Obama unless Congress came up with a new law.
He told reporters on Wednesday his immigration framework, to be unveiled next week, would seek $25 billion for a border wall with Mexico, $5 billion for other border security programs, measures to curb family sponsorship of immigrants, and an overhaul of or end to the visa lottery system.
In exchange, the Republican president said he wanted to offer the Dreamers protection from deportation and an "incentive" of citizenship, perhaps in 10 to 12 years.
Many senators involved in the negotiations said they were buoyed by Trump's comments. Moderate Republican Susan Collins called them "a good sign," and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said the comments could be "a breakthrough."
“We’ve been playing this game for quite a while," Graham said after about 20 senators billing themselves as the "common sense coalition" met in Collins' office. "I think a pathway to citizenship is very much in the realm of possibility. Clearly you need strong border security, but bottom line is I think that was a breakthrough."
Republican Senator Jeff Flake said Trump's words on citizenship reflected a bipartisan proposal by Graham and Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin that Trump recently criticized as "very very weak" in an interview with Reuters. That bill also called for a path to citizenship for Dreamers in 10 to 12 years.
Democrat Amy Klobuchar said "it was certainly helpful" that Trump supported a path to citizenship for Dreamers.
'SURPRISED A LOT OF PEOPLE'
But conservative Republican Ted Cruz said it would be a "serious mistake" to grant a path to citizenship for any immigrants in the United States illegally.
"We see Republicans falling all over themselves to gallop to the left of Obama in a way that is contrary to the promises made to the voters who elected us," said Cruz, an immigration hardliner.
Other Republicans said citizenship for Dreamers could not be discussed without considering other aspects, including border security.
John Cornyn, the No. 2 Senate Republican, said Trump's comments "surprised a lot of people," while Senator Mike Rounds questioned whether Democrats would now be willing to address issues such as the immigration status of the parents of Dreamers, who Rounds said should not get preference.
Many Democrats remained cautious about Trump's stance ahead of next week's unveiling of the White House framework.
"The White House unfortunately has proven unreliable and wildly unpredictable," Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer said on the Senate floor. "Within the course of hours, they say different things. Every time the president moves forward on one thing, his staff pulls him back and undoes what he says."
Schumer urged the bipartisan group of senators to keep meeting and reach a "narrow" deal on the Dreamers and border security.
McConnell restated his pledge to proceed to a debate and vote on immigration and border security in the Senate if a long-term agreement eludes the chamber by Feb. 8, as long as the government stays open.
Earlier this week, McConnell persuaded Democrats to support the reopening of government after a weekend shutdown by promising the Senate would debate the fate of the Dreamers.