Trump Risks GOP Civil War in Pushing Congress for ‘Dreamer’ Bill

Updated on
  • Former Trump aide Bannon is stoking a battle over the issue
  • President made decision without consulting Republicans

Former Senator John Danforth on Trump's DACA Decision

President Donald Trump’s decision to end an Obama-era program preventing the deportation of immigrants illegally brought to the U.S. as children risks a deep wedge between the Republican Party’s leaders and its conservative base ahead of next year’s congressional elections.

In announcing an end to the program in the next six months, Trump called on Congress to pass legislation to codify the protections President Barack Obama created for about 800,000 people, called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.

Demonstrators protest the end of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals in Chicago, on Sept. 5.

Photographer: Christopher Dilts/Bloomberg

But Trump made his decision against the advice of senior Republican leaders like Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, who said in a statement that he called Trump last week to urge him to preserve the program. Nor did Trump consult much with business leaders or allies outside the White House, according to five people familiar with the matter.

One influential outside adviser, Blackstone Group CEO Stephen Schwarzman, had recommended earlier this year that Trump keep DACA in place, but one White House aide said Trump didn’t check back with Schwarzman before making up his mind this weekend. He instead focused on recommendations from officials inside the Homeland Security and Justice departments, the aide said.

Read more: How Trump’s Move Puts Immigrants’ Dreams at Risk

In the face of a sharp backlash over his decision by Democrats and some Republicans, Trump issued a tweet Tuesday evening that suggested he was open to reversing course but offered no details to back it up.

“Congress now has 6 months to legalize DACA (something the Obama Administration was unable to do). If they can’t, I will revisit this issue!,” he tweeted.

But Trump told reporters in the Oval Office Wednesday morning he had “no second thoughts” on ending the program.

Bloomberg’s Kevin Cirilli reports on Trump’s move to end the DACA program.

Source: Bloomberg

Whether Republicans wanted the debate or not, the DACA decision threatens to again lay bare the civil war over immigration between far-right conservatives and more business-minded Republicans. One person eager to fight that battle: Trump’s former chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, who may have had more influence over the president’s decision than even Trump knows.

Presidency ‘Over’

Since leaving the White House last month, Bannon has stoked the president’s hard-right instincts in news interviews. He chose his words carefully when he declared in an interview with the Weekly Standard last month, shortly after departing, that the Trump presidency was “over,” according to two people familiar with his thinking.

Bannon wanted Trump angry, and was daring the president to prove him wrong by veering back toward the nationalist-populist philosophy the Breitbart executive chairman espouses. 

For some Republicans up for re-election next year, such as Senators Jeff Flake of Arizona and Dean Heller of Nevada, DACA is a minefield to navigate. Immigration hardliners on the right will have great influence in Republican primary elections, while more moderate voters will be key in their contests with Democratic opponents, said Jennifer Duffy, Senate editor of the non-partisan Cook Political Report.

Bannon has predicted a congressional debate over the program will tear the party apart, the people familiar with his thinking say.

“Democrats would love to have this issue alive and well in the primary season,” said Duffy.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, said that if DACA legislation isn’t approved in September, lawmakers from his party are likely to try to attach it to other measures.

“I am confident that if put on the floor, it will garner overwhelming support,” Schumer told reporters Monday.

Emotional Debate

The divisions among Republicans have already surfaced. 

“From a Republican party point of view, this is a defining moment,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said Tuesday at a news conference with the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, Dick Durbin of Illinois, to urge passage of legislation protecting immigrants in the DACA program.

By contrast, Representative Steve King of Iowa, who urged Trump over the weekend to end the program outright, said that a delay to let Republican leadership develop legislation codifying the protections, which he considers “amnesty,” would be “Republican suicide.”

In the Senate, Flake has called for a standalone bill that would allow children brought to the U.S. unlawfully to stay, while Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania said he would only support legislation to protect the immigrants if it also includes measures such as punishment for so-called “sanctuary cities” that forbid their police from cooperating with immigration authorities and a crackdown on companies hiring undocumented workers.

“I think this is more emotional than Obamacare, and I think this is difficult,” said Alice Stewart, a Republican communications consultant who worked on Senator Ted Cruz’s presidential bid. “I have seen more heated arguments over immigration reform than Obamacare.”

President Barack Obama created DACA after legislation that would have provided legal status to the immigrants failed in the U.S. Senate in December 2010. After Republicans took control of the House in 2011, there was little impetus to revive so-called “Dream Act” legislation.

Congress also has been unable to advance more comprehensive immigration legislation, the sort of bill that could include a DACA-type provision. The Senate in 2013 passed legislation that would create a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., combined with more than $46 billion for border security. The U.S. House, however, never acted.

Latino Appeal

The Republican Party has struggled to improve its appeal with Latino voters, even though there has been little change in policy. An “autopsy” on the party’s 2012 presidential loss by then-Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus warned that the party’s standing with Latino voters was dangerously low and urged party members to abandon hard-line positions on immigration and embrace a comprehensive overhaul.

“If we do not, our party’s appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only,” the report said.

But among much of Trump’s base, any such legislation is derided as “amnesty” for people who have violated U.S. law, and the lawmakers who support it are likely to be opposed by those voters, Republican strategists said.

Legislative Strategy

Now that Trump has laid out a deadline for the program, House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and other Republican leaders haven’t indicated when or how they’ll consider legislation to preserve it. Ryan said in a statement that he hopes Congress will pass a bill that "includes ensuring that those who have done nothing wrong can still contribute as a valued part of this great country."

Ryan told reporters Wednesday that "people should rest easy," though he said a solution should be paired with action to secure U.S. borders. “I do believe there’s a compromise to be had here,” he said.

The Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, was even less committal. “This Congress will continue working on securing our border and ensuring a lawful system of immigration that works,” he said in a statement.

And while there are must-pass vehicles this fall that could carry a DACA provision -- including a stop-gap spending measure due by the end of the month to prevent a government shutdown -- Republican conservatives in both chambers will likely balk at such a strategy. Many of them have demanded trade-offs that would prolong debate and cost the legislation Democratic support, including enhanced security at the U.S.-Mexico border -- or even money to pay for Trump’s proposed border wall -- and tighter limits on legal immigration.

Trump this summer publicly offered his support for a measure by GOP senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia, a bill that would slash legal immigration by half over a decade.

Vulnerable Republicans

A number of vulnerable Republican senators and House members could see their 2018 re-election campaigns threatened by a protracted congressional debate over DACA.

Flake and Heller, the two Senate Republicans most at risk of losing their seats, both have sizable Latino populations in their states and support preserving DACA’s protections. Republican House members with similar demographics in their districts have taken the same position, including Mike Coffman of Colorado, Jeff Denham of California and Carlos Curbelo of Florida.

Flake and Heller both face Republican primary opponents who are sticking close to Trump on immigration issues.

Kelli Ward, who ran unsuccessfully against Senator John McCain of Arizona in 2016, recently announced she will run against Flake. She says on her website that the U.S. “cannot reward breaking our laws with citizenship, ever,” and said in a statement Tuesday that Trump made the “right decision” by rescinding DACA.

Danny Tarkanian, who announced he will challenge Heller for Nevada’s GOP Senate nod, also has promised to support Trump on tighter immigration enforcement.

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