WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump has spent recent weeks publicly hammering Congress to crack down on “legal loopholes” he said allow criminals to enter the country illegally. But behind the scenes, Trump has shown little interest in jumping into an intensifying Capitol Hill debate over immigration legislation that many believe is unlikely to ever reach his desk.
Trump is largely sitting out the biggest immigration showdown of his presidency to date as renegade House Republicans – from both the right and the center – drive an effort to force votes on immigration proposals. That includes legislation that would provide young “Dreamer” immigrants a path to legal status and beef up border security, but may fall short of funding Trump’s promised wall along the southern border.
The president isn’t calling House members into the Oval Office for private chats. He’s not dialing them up to gauge their votes or lobby. His Twitter feed – the clearest window into his personal priorities – is nearly mum on the subject. Instead, he’s waiting for Republicans to try to hammer out a deal that both moderates and conservatives can support.
“There are bills going through, I’m watching one or two of them. We’ll see what happens,” Trump told Fox News in an interview this week, underscoring his hands-off approach.
One senior White House official said the issue is seen inside the building as a House affair, and Trump would be happy to engage if asked to by House leaders once a compromise is reached. The person said the White House intends to hammer immigration and border security issues as a key part of its midterm election strategy. Even if legislation fails to pass both houses, the White House believes Republicans will reap political gains, said the person – who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss private conversations.
But one senior GOP Capitol Hill aide familiar with the discussions said the White House has signaled to congressional leaders through quieter channels – including a meeting at the White House last week – that the president sees little benefit in expending too much political capital before the midterm elections on building support for legislation that is thought to have little chance of becoming law.
While White House aides are working with GOP leaders on an alternative bill that might win over enough Republicans to pass, the president has held back, letting House leadership take the lead in developing a legislative strategy, according to White House and congressional aides.
Such restraint may seem unexpected for a president who has made immigration his signature issue. But his reluctance to engage highlights the clear limits of the election-year gambit. Without Trump, the effort is more likely to sputter in Congress as factions collide.
The arm’s-length approach also might reflect a concern – already being felt among some conservatives – that passing any legislation that extends protection to immigrants will anger Trump’s base as “amnesty” and could depress turnout in November, when Republicans need to counter a wave of Democratic enthusiasm.
This latest effort comes as congressional leaders had all but abandoned the immigration issue after failed Senate attempts to resolve the standoff earlier this year. But now a rebellious group of GOP moderates – led by those in Florida and California, states with large immigrant populations – is pushing it to the fore.
They’re collecting signatures to force a series of immigration votes in June, including on a bipartisan bill to address the “Dreamers” and the border wall. Trump is not likely to support that bill because it doesn’t fully fund the wall.
The moderate Republicans are employing an unusual procedural maneuver to essentially take over the chamber, with the help of Democrats, and force the vote. As lawmakers left town for the weeklong Memorial Day recess, they were just a couple of signatures shy of the 25 Republicans needed to push it forward.
One leader of the effort, Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., said he was convinced after talking with Trump during a recent visit to Key West that Trump “wants an immigration solution.”
Curbelo believes the White House “is as impatient with congressional inaction as we are” and he sees the administration’s hands-off approach as a tactic to force the issue forward.
“If they wanted to kill this process they could have done so easily by now,” Curbelo said. “The silence is extremely powerful – and helpful.”
House GOP leaders, though, are desperately trying to stop the effort, hoping to regain control by convening moderate and conservative lawmakers to draft a bill that wouldn’t need to rely on Democrats for support.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and other leaders held meetings this past week to negotiate a Republican alternative that could win the president’s support.
Republicans, said Ryan, are seeking to find the “sweet spot” of a bill that could win enough support from Republicans to pass, and that the president would sign.
White House press aides did not respond to repeated requests for comment. But Marc Short, the White House’s legislative director, said Friday the administration was waiting to “see what comes out of the House in the next couple weeks” to determine its next steps.
He said the president is “anxious” to work with Democrats and on a solution for the Dreamers, immigrants were brought to the U.S. as children illegally and previously protected from deportation by the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Trump canceled the program, but courts have acted to keep it in place.
“I think it’s clear that we want to have a permanent solution – legislative – to the DACA population. And we want to make sure that there is border security funding and resources available,” said Short.
But finding a workable compromise between the moderates and the conservative Freedom Caucus remains a longshot. Behind the scenes, Republicans acknowledge the coming votes are likely to be more for show than results – especially since Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been cool to revisiting the issue after a series of bills failed to win passage in February.
Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., the deputy whip, said a GOP bill that could unite the factions is “in complete flux.”
“There is enough good will for a compromise,” McHenry said. “The question is, can anyone close?”