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Trump's immigration pitch draws tepid response from the right

by Benjy Sarlin /  / Updated 
Image: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, accompanied by Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), Sen. John Thune (R-SD), Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) and Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), speaks with reporters following the party luncheons on Capitol Hill in Washington
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks with reporters following the party luncheons on Capitol Hill on Jan. 23.Aaron P. Bernstein / Reuters

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WASHINGTON — New immigration proposals advanced by the White House Thursday drew mostly tepid responses from a Republican Party that has waged fierce internal battles over the issue for decades.

The top GOP leaders in the House and Senate each responded with noncommittal statements that treated the proposal — which called for major cuts to legal immigration and a border wall in exchange for a path to citizenship for young immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children — as more of a broad suggestion rather than a starting point for legislation.

“This framework builds upon the four pillars for reform that the president has consistently put forth, and indicates what is necessary for the president to sign a bill into law,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said. “I am hopeful that as discussions continue in the Senate on the subject of immigration, members on both sides of the aisle will look to this framework for guidance as they work towards an agreement.”

A spokesman for House Speaker Paul Ryan expressed gratitude to the president Thursday for "showing leadership on this issue" and said that they believe "his ideas will help us ultimately reach a balanced solution.”

A large group of senators are currently working on their own bipartisan negotiations, and Republicans and Democrats had both warned in the run-up to the White House proposal that they were unlikely to reach a deal if talks ventured too far beyond DACA and border security. Democrats and immigration advocacy groups immediately denounced Trump's plan in fiery terms on Thursday night, making it unlikely it can serve as the basis for a bill.

Senator Marco Rubio, R-Fla., suggested in a statement on Friday that lawmakers should focus on passing narrow legislation addressing "the most immediate problems" created by the end of DACA along with border security issues, and move on to other topics later.

"The reaction, from both sides, to the President's outline is a reminder that the more an immigration bill tries to do, the harder it is to pass," he said.

On the right, some conservative websites and groups blasted the proposal as too lenient. Breitbart’s homepage was splashed with headlines about “amnesty” that portrayed Trump’s plan to eventually grant citizenship to up to 1.8 million unauthorized immigrants as a betrayal of his campaign promises. Numbers USA, an advocacy group that seeks lower immigration levels and had backed a House GOP proposal with a much narrower path to legal status for DACA recipients, rejected the White House plan outright. Some immigration hawks complained that the cuts to legal immigration, which would grandfather in existing green card applications, would not occur fast enough.

Congressman Steve King, R-Iowa, generally considered the furthest right member of the House on immigration, declared that "illegals have no right to be here" on Twitter and accused the White House of releasing a plan that "negotiates away American sovereignty."

“I have some concerns,” Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, told FOX News. He said the “focus” of any bill had to be on cutting immigration levels and border security and that he was wary of any deal that would tilt more toward helping DACA recipients.

Shortly before the White House plan dropped, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, reiterated his position that he would not support any path to citizenship for Dreamers, telling reporters it was “inconsistent with the promises we made to the men and women who elected us,” according to Bloomberg.

But some Republican senators who had been working on their own DACA fixes praised Trump’s plan, including Thom Tillis of North Carolina, who called it a “realistic framework,” and James Lankford of Oklahoma, who called it a “responsible solution.”

The strongest praise came from Sens. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and David Perdue, R-Ga. The two are close allies of the White House and the plan seemed to draw on their prior legislation, the Trump-backed RAISE Act, which would reduce immigration by up to half by eliminating the diversity visa lottery and some family categories of immigration.

“We all want a good deal, and here it is,” Perdue said in a statement.

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