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The government shutdown is over but the immigration fight has just begun

by Leigh Ann Caldwell /  / Updated 
Senators Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., talk to reporters after a meeting with a bipartisan group of moderate Senators in Collins' office on Capitol Hill on Jan. 22, 2018 in Washington.Drew Angerer / Getty Images

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WASHINGTON — Now that the government has reopened, the hard part begins. New promises are pushing Congress to move forward on divisive immigration issues like DACA and border security with almost lightning speed for a deliberative body that is used to a glacial pace.

And while leaders of both parties in the Senate have agreed on a process, they remain miles apart on the details of a solution.

Divisions over immigration were a major reason why the government was shut down for three days in the first place and a lack of trust — between Democrats and the White House, Democrats and Republicans in Congress, and even Republicans and Republicans — remains palpable on Capitol Hill.

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Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., expressed optimism at process ahead.

"I think we have renewed momentum of the Dreamer issue, which everyone supported, but is much more highlighted, so we are very pleased with how it worked," Schumer told reporters Tuesday.

Discussions continue about the fate of hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States illegally as children, the size and scope of President Donald Trump's border wall and a host of related immigration and security issues.

But with less than three weeks to work with, there are no signs that the underlying divisions have eased. For example, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer took his offer to Trump of funding for the border wall, made just hours before the government shutdown, off the table, according to Schumer spokesman Matt House.

The hard-line conservative immigration faction in the House and Senate, often backed by Trump, is working to derail any bipartisan effort to address the so-called Dreamers covered by the Deferred Action for Child Arrivals program, or DACA, and instead hope to refocus talks on limiting legal immigration and massively increase funding for border security and interior enforcement.

A week before the shutdown, a bipartisan group of senators agreed on a proposal that provided a path to citizenship for DACA recipients, as well as enhanced border security, minor limits on family-based migration and changes to the visa diversity lottery.

But Trump dismissed the proposal in a profanity-laced meeting that has done major damage to any comity in Washington, including leading to the three-day government shutdown.

"The gang of six started the process," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., referring to the bipartisan group, of which he was a member. "We need the gang of 60. So the gang of six needs to be replaced by the gang of 60."

Graham's bipartisan proposal, crafted with Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., has the support of at least seven Republicans and likely most Democrats. But it's become a nonstarter for the bulk of GOP members since Trump vehemently opposed it two weeks ago.

It all leaves the path forward unclear.

Even if bipartisan legislation manages to pass in the Senate, the House is historically where immigration bills go to die. The House's makeup of more conservative Republicans and more liberal Democrats has led to little consensus on an issue that deeply divides the electorate.

And as the midterms get closer and Republican prospects of keeping their majority in the House become uncertain, it’s not clear that Speaker Paul Ryan will allow his members to take such politically difficult votes.

Additionally, in exchange for the conservative House Freedom Caucus' support for the stop-gap spending bill, Ryan said he’d hold a vote on a partisan immigration bill if the conservatives compile enough votes for passage. He has given no such commitment on a bipartisan proposal that has been introduced in the House.

The four Republican and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate haven’t met since the shutdown battle began on Friday, and there’s no meeting currently scheduled.

After the House passed the Senate’s version of the spending bill Monday night, it started its previously scheduled recess. The House majority leader, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., a member of the bipartisan, bicameral group, is headed to Davos for the rest of the week.

And the first meeting Trump held after it was clear that Congress was headed toward ending the shutdown was with some of the Senate's most conservative members on immigration who have no intention of supporting the bipartisan proposal on the table.

“Flake and Durbin are dead,” said Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., who attended the meeting with Trump, referring to the bipartisan proposal co-written by Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., Durbin, Graham and three other senators.

Cotton, an ardent opponent of illegal immigration and a proponent of drastically reducing legal immigration, has been working closely with White House aide Stephen Miller to interrupt any bipartisan agreement addressing Dreamers. Miller attended the meeting as did Chief of Staff John Kelly and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kristjen Nielson, who also have argued against the bipartisan proposal on the table.

The agreement in the Senate that led to the reopening of the government included a commitment to take up “a neutral” DACA proposal and allow a vote on amendments to shape the legislation if an agreement isn’t reached by Feb. 8.

The agreement has divided Senate Democrats. Half of the caucus doesn't trust the White House or congressional Republicans to take seriously the issue of Dreamers and they worry that Democrats have lost their leverage by allowing the government to reopen.

"I intend to keep my word," McConnell told reporters. But he said that what he offered Democrats was "hardly" different than his previous position.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who was also at the meeting with Trump, seemed to broaden some of the definitions previously agreed on by the president and members of Congress on what a DACA bill would look like. He said on the Senate floor that border security would also include interior enforcement of people in the country illegally, which Democrats adamantly oppose and was widely believed to be part of any second phase of an immigration overhaul.

“We’re working through those four issues as I speak, trying to find a permanent solution for the DACA recipients, making sure that border security and interior enforcement is beefed up so we don’t have a repetition of this situation in the future,” Cornyn said.

The president also called two Democratic senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Doug Jones of Alabama, to the White House later in the afternoon. The two said that Miller, Nielson and Kelly also attended the meeting. They were thanked for being among the five Democrats to vote for the short-term funding bill Friday night.

Manchin said there were no promises made and that it was not a detailed discussion, but he said his message was: “I think there’s a pathway forward and let the Senate do what the Senate does.”

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who was instrumental in finding a resolution to end the government shutdown and is also a co-sponsor of the bipartisan Graham-Durbin DACA bill, said the president called her Monday night. She said she told him that he needs to support a path to citizenship for Dreamers.

"I told him a story of a young dreamer in Maine who came to the country at age 4. He has absolutely no memory of a native land. He’s doing very well as a student at the University of Southern Maine," Collins said. "And (he) didn’t even know he wasn’t an American citizen until he went to apply for a driver’s license. That story is typical of a lot of Dreamers because the average age that they were brought here is age 6. So it is not fair to penalize this group for the violations of their parents. And the president listened very carefully."

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