President Donald Trump is doubling down on his position that young immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children should not be penalized.
For moderate Republicans and Democrats, that's good news. For conservatives, it's a bit of a surprise.
The President said he wants Congress to tackle four areas in any immigration deal
President Donald Trump's citizenship comments complicate any narrow deal
In an environment where Republican and Democratic lawmakers are never sure how long it will be before Trump shifts his outlook on immigration, his comments Wednesday evening, in which he proclaimed he was open to a path to citizenship for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program recipients -- coupled with news Thursday that White House officials said on a conference call that citizenship could encompass 1.8 million immigrants -- were welcome news for some on Capitol Hill.
"It was certainly helpful that he said there should be a path for dreamers and he emphasized how important that was. Other things aren't helpful, but you take what you can get," said Minnesota Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar Thursday morning before the White House staff call. "I think that was a clear message to some of the Republicans, especially in the House, that he wants to see something done on (DACA recipients) legislatively and that it should include path to citizenship."
In the wake of a government shutdown, lawmakers on Capitol hill appear refocused on immigration, committed to trying to find resolution in the Senate under a tight deadline and in the midst of a midterm election year. Republicans especially say the White House could be a vital partner in that and many say they're looking forward to the White House releasing its legislative priorities Monday. But, after a series of false starts and disparate poles of power in the administration, they weren't holding their breath Trump's comments on citizenship would last.
"We're getting started without them. It helps to have a statement, I think, like the President made because this is going to have to be a bipartisan bill, and I think on the Democratic side, a path to citizenship is a starting point, so that helps," said Sen. Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona. "If he sticks to that position, that helps."
Thursday's announcement on a staff call certainly added more certainty than members of Congress have been bracing for.
The President has already said that he'd like Congress to tackle four areas in any immigration deal: DACA, border security including money for some version of Trump's campaign pledge of a border wall, the visa lottery and family reunification or what he calls chain migration. But while the contours of a DACA-for-border-security deal are fairly straightforward, Republicans and Democrats are still debating what a reformed visa lottery or family based migration deal would even be. Many admit that trying to tackle those items may be too tough in the time frame they have. Members of the bipartisan group have discussed whether it would make more sense to simply stick to a border-security-for-DACA solution in order to meet the March 5 deadline.
"I think we're going to end up introducing a bill -- probably smaller than some people would like," Flake said.
But Trump's citizenship comments also complicate any narrow deal. Republican leaders on Capitol Hill -- carefully balancing the lure of any immigration compromise with the expectations of their right flank -- spent Thursday trying to quell any expectation that border security would be a fair price to pay for citizenship for DACA recipients.
"If you start talking about a path to citizenship, you'll start losing Republicans unless there is something else on the table," said South Dakota Republican Sen. John Thune, a member of leadership.
But at least a few conservatives were joining the more moderate members in praising the White House's stance.
"I applaud the White House for offering a solid framework for immigration reform that provides a responsible solution for DACA, border security and other immigration issues," said Sen. James Lankford, a conservative Republican from Oklahoma who's been involved in congressional negotiations, following the White House call. "This framework provides certainty for families, enacts common-sense reforms to nuclear family sponsorship policy and protects our nation. Ignoring our many immigration problems is a form of amnesty that must end. In the days ahead, Congress must immediately engage in honest debate focused on solutions, not partisanship."
The White House continues to be a wild card for congressional negotiators with Republicans divided into distinct camps between those who want to charge ahead without Trump and those urging the party to wait for the President to lead on an issue as devise as immigration.
Democrats are also watching Trump closely. Heading into a bipartisan meeting Thursday morning on Capitol Hill, Democrats wanted to believe Trump could be evolving.
"I choose to find that encouraging," said Sen. Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware, highlighting a previous bipartisan agreement from a group that includes Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois and Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a plan that Trump rejected.
"I hope the President will stay with that as a position," Coons continued. "If he were to publicly embrace a pathway to citizenship for (DACA recipients) around the same timelines as the Graham-Durbin bill, I think that would be a significant step forward and I think that would help encourage members of the House to also negotiate in good faith and consider this as the best path forward."