White House seeks to rekindle immigration debate on Hill

White House quietly reaching out to allies

By TAL KOPAN, CNN
Darren Hauck/Getty Images

WASHINGTON (CNN) - The White House is quietly feeling the waters on trying for another push on immigration legislation as President Donald Trump continues to up the rhetoric on the issue.

Trump focused on border security and immigration last week, tweeting repeatedly about the need for congressional action and ordering the deployment of the National Guard to the border.

But sources say the there's more than just tweets, that the White House has been quietly reaching out to allies on the Hill to explore what might be doable. Still, that outreach has to date not included any Democrats and has been unfocused, leaving it unlikely the effort could muster the votes it would need to pass.

"I think there is a real attempt to figure something out -- I don't think they actually know what they want -- but there's a legitimate want to do something on this," said one senior GOP aide of the White House's outreach efforts.

The aide characterized the outreach more as floating ideas than coming up with a game plan, and noted that the White House doesn't seem to be building a coalition to pass the bill yet. Another GOP source agreed any talks are more exploratory than organized.

"It is frustrating that things are so unclear and it would be better to have a coalition that the White House is part of in these conversations, to be a little bit more specific," the aide said.

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican who has worked on unsuccessful bipartisan efforts to save the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy Trump ended, said on Fox News on Monday that there could be another opportunity.

"The President wants to do a DACA deal -- border wall money plus other border security measures are very much on the table," Graham said. "Our southern border is porous. It needs to be rebuilt strongly and the DACA kids need to have certainty their lives. I hope this President can find Democrats to work with him."

Last week, a senior White House official told reporters in a conference call that the White House intended to make a legislative push, which sounded much like what the White House tried unsuccessfully to advance going back to last October.

"We are going to be sending Congress a legislative package to close these loopholes so we can return these illegal immigrants in a responsible and expeditious manner," the official said on condition of anonymity, saying one strategy may be to call narrow, individual bills to force Democrats to take a tough vote opposing them.

"I would expect that in the spring/summer the issue of border security is probably going to be one of the biggest issues on Congress' plate," the official said.

The GOP leadership offices on both sides of the Capitol had no comment on any planned immigration push -- the next focus in the House is passing a balanced budget amendment and the Senate has been working on nominations. A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said there were no schedule announcements beyond the nominations for this week and noted that the chamber has already voted down legislation on sanctuary cities during the DACA fight in February.

Democrats, meanwhile, say there has been no fresh outreach to them after talks about attaching something to the government spending package stale mated.

"Oh hell no," one Democratic member of Congress said when asked if there had been any fresh White House outreach.

A senior Democratic Senate aide poured cold water on the notion a deal could be reached. Citing repeated rejections of Democratic and bipartisan deal offerings leading up to the failed effort in February and stalled talks on the spending bill, the aide doubted any White House and Republican-only driven effort could pass muster.

A group of bipartisan lawmakers proposed a deal that would have offered eligible young immigrants a pathway to citizenship in exchange for $25 billion for Trump's border wall and some restrictions on family-based migration, including on the eventual beneficiaries of the program. After an aggressive attack against the bill, it fell six votes short of advancing.

There are some indicators as to what the White House could get through Congress -- or couldn't. A proposal closely tracking the full White House wishlist from October has failed to lock enough Republican support to be called for a vote in the House, and the administration proposed a somewhat scaled-down version of its wish list in a framework for a deal to preserve DACA in February that failed to get even 40 votes in the 100-member Senate.

The House has passed a handful of measures already that have languished or failed in the Senate, including a sanctuary cities bill that fell six votes short of advancing in February. It has also failed to pass "Kate's Law," a bill that would increasingly penalize repeat criminal border-crossers, in past Congresses.

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