There's still a way to break Trump's will on immigration

Published on Sunday, 11 February 2018 19:59

It looks as though there may be only one remaining way to get President Donald Trump to agree to a reasonable deal protecting the “dreamers.” It’s this: Demonstrate to him convincingly that he cannot get what he is demanding in exchange, and that if he does not agree to a balanced compromise, he will be widely portrayed as a failed deal-maker who is directly responsible for the emotional stories that will soon unfold of dreamers getting driven underground or getting deported.

That is admittedly a long shot. But it’s not impossible. And it does point to a possible end to this standoff.

Senate leaders in both parties have struck a deal to lift defense and non-defense spending caps by hundreds of billions of dollars over the next two years. At the same time, Nancy Pelosi’s marathon eight-hour speech Wednesday demanding a vote to protect the dreamers drew a lot of media attention but didn’t achieve its desired result: House Speaker Paul Ryan’s office was unmoved, and reiterated his stance that he will only bring up for a vote something the president supports.

Here is the bottom line on the state of play right now. Nothing that resembles Trump’s set of demands in exchange for protecting the dreamers - tons of additional border security money, including for a wall; changes to the diversity visa lottery and family based migration that amount to deep cuts to legal immigration - can get 60 votes in the Senate. Period. It isn’t happening. At the same time, a compromise that likely can pass the Senate could very likely also pass the House. But Ryan, R-Wis., almost certainly won’t allow a vote on such a compromise, because Trump won’t support it and the hardliners in his caucus will shriek with rage.

Next week, that basic underlying dynamic will get pushed out into the open and will come to a head. And one thing that may happen is that Trump will learn he can’t get his way.

Here’s how. Right now, a bipartisan group of senators is hoping to reach some sort of deal on the dreamers that might pass with a wide enough bipartisan margin to force the House to act on it. That deal could look something like the recent one negotiated by Sens. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., which legalized the dreamers in exchange for border money and some limited tweaks to family-based immigration, which Trump rejected.

Or, if that fails to materialize, senators might reach a simpler deal that exchanges legalizing the dreamers in exchange for just border money, which has been pushed by senators like Marco Rubio, R-Fla.

At the same time, Trump’s hardline anti-immigration allies in the Senate - such as Tom Cotton, R-Ark. - will probably introduce some version of Trump’s much more draconian proposal that includes cuts to legal immigration. That will fail badly, probably falling well short of 50 votes because it will have almost no Democrats and will lose even some Republicans. But whatever deal the bipartisan group negotiates might get more votes - possibly 60, enough to pass it, or possibly somewhere in the mid-50s. It will then be clear that the only thing that has any chance of passing the Senate is something that wins all Democrats plus around a dozen Republicans - something that protects the dreamers in exchange for border security money plus some tweaks to family-based migration, or just border security money.

Trump will reject this deal. But here’s where Ryan comes in. Ryan says he won’t hold a vote on anything unless Trump supports it. But what this very likely means is that Ryan wants Trump to say what he’s willing to accept, and won’t hold a vote on anything until he does that.

As of now, Ryan reportedly lacks the votes to pass a budget deal with only Republicans, so it’s possible that he may have to relent and hold a vote on the dreamers to win over some Dems to help pass the budget deal.

But that’s doubtful. Pelosi says she is not whipping for a No vote on the budget deal, meaning it will likely end up passing with just enough Dems and with just enough conservatives remaining in the fold.

And so - if the budget deal is behind us and if the Senate has demonstrated that it can’t pass anything on immigration like what Trump wants - then the focus will return to what the president is actually prepared to accept. And then Trump will have to decide whether he really wants to take the public blame for driving the dreamers underground or whether he’s willing to accept a deal that demonstrably can pass the Senate, in which he gets a huge amount of border money in exchange for protecting the dreamers, which is what he says he wants to do anyway.

Trump will then have to decide whether he will take yes for an answer.

It wouldn’t be hard to structure that border spending so Trump can call it money for his wall, even as Dems say it’s only for something like “fence repair.” If Trump blesses such a deal - over the inevitable opposition of his nativist advisers - it might then be able to pass the House. Will Trump really walk away from being able to declare a win on the wall - fulfilling his most glorious campaign promise - while also taking credit for protecting the dreamers, which (as an added bonus) he can depict as a victory that eluded President Barack Obama?

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog.

Posted in The Bristol Press, Column on Sunday, 11 February 2018 19:59. Updated: Sunday, 11 February 2018 20:01.