Trump Throws House GOP Immigration Compromise Into Confusion

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump threw House Republican efforts to pass an immigration bill into confusion Friday, saying he won’t sign a compromise measure that would end his policy of separating immigrant children from parents when they illegally cross the U.S. border. Shortly afterward, the White House told lawmakers he misspoke.

The president’s statement threatened to blow up a deal House Republicans reached after weeks of negotiations. But a person familiar with the negotiations said the White House contacted lawmakers to make clear that Trump hadn’t switched his thinking from earlier in the week, when he told House Speaker Paul Ryan he would back the compromise plan.

The House plans to vote next week on two versions of immigration legislation that sought to address White House demands as well as those of GOP moderates facing potentially tough races in the November congressional elections. Many House Republicans said Friday that Trump’s comments undercut any effort to get a bill passed.

"I’m looking at both of them. I certainly won’t sign the more moderate one," Trump said Friday in an interview on Fox News.

Later, the person familiar with the talks said the president may have thought he was being asked about a separate effort by a group of Republicans joined by Democrats to force a vote on a series of immigration bills. A White House official also confirmed that the president is inclined to support the compromise plan being circulated in Congress.

Republicans in Congress are showing growing unease with the rising number of family separations, which has begun generating public backlash. Ryan and Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn both said Thursday that legislative action is needed to keep families together.

“I hate the children being taken away," Trump said during an impromptu media appearance on the White House lawn, blaming without evidence the law and Democrats for the policy his Justice Department initiated.

The legislation backed by Republican moderates includes a provision that would explicitly prohibit the Homeland Security Department from releasing children who cross with their parents to anyone other than a parent or legal guardian.

Speaking for Trump

House Republicans said they were given assurances earlier this week by Stephen Miller, the main architect of the administration’s approach on immigration, that Trump supported bringing the two versions of immigration legislation to a vote.

Before the White House walked back the president’s remarks, several lawmakers expressed disappointment. Representative Mike Coffman, a moderate Republican from a competitive Colorado district, said, "The president needs to read the bill," adding that Trump was just "responding to the word ‘moderate’."

“I thought this was the bill the White House was analyzing in a positive fashion,” said another GOP moderate, Leonard Lance of New Jersey.

Earlier this week Ryan touted the compromise bill as something that could actually become law because it includes provisions allowing legal status for young undocumented immigrants, money for a wall at the U.S. border with Mexico, and cuts to legal immigration Trump said must be included in a bill he would sign.

Lobbying Trump

Anti-immigration hardliner Steve King of Iowa said he spoke to White House officials last night and urged them to get Trump to oppose the compromise bill. 

“The president knows that amnesty for DACA recipients is not part of his mandate,” said King, referring to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that protects undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children from being deported.

Trump tweeted on Friday that "Any Immigration Bill MUST HAVE full funding for the Wall, end Catch & Release, Visa Lottery and Chain, and go to Merit Based Immigration" -- all elements that are addressed in the compromise GOP plan.

Republican Representative Mike Simpson of Idaho -- speaking before the White House clarified the president’s remarks -- said the measure is likely doomed either way.

“I don’t think either bill makes it out of the House,” Simpson said. “It’s a tough damn issue. “

Simpson said that Trump weighing in on legislation off the cuff has become a major headache for congressional Republicans, citing his shifting positions on the massive budget plan approved earlier this year. 

“At this point I would not put a final ‘this bill will not ever see floor action’ banner across the top,” said Representative Mark Meadows of North Carolina, chairman of the conservative Republican House Freedom Caucus. Meadows said he is broadly supportive of the bill’s outline.

About two dozen Republicans -- frustrated with the president’s unpredictability -- have joined Democrats in signing a petition that would force a vote on four immigration proposals, including those favored by Democrats. The petition is just two signatures short of the number needed to require the votes.

Trump blamed Democrats on Friday for the policy of taking children from their parents, saying, "The Democrats have to change their law, that’s their law."

But White House officials haven’t been able to cite any part of U.S. law that requires the policy, which was initiated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The president, his aides and congressional Republicans have given differing rationales for it: Sessions and Chief of Staff John Kelly said children were being taken away as a deterrent while Republicans in Congress recently said it’s based on a 1997 court settlement regarding the treatment of immigrant children in federal custody.

No prior administration interpreted the ruling in the way Trump’s has, and some legal experts say the 1997 settlement doesn’t require children to be separated from their parents.

Temporary Shelters

Children who arrive with their parents are being sent to temporary government shelters while their parents go through a legal process. Republicans in the Senate said Thursday they may seek separate legislation to end the practice. The House moderate plan would state that a minor who doesn’t arrive at the border unaccompanied must be released to a parent or legal guardian.

Democratic Representative Luis Gutierrez of Illinois told reporters the administration is "skirting the rules" to separate children from their parents.

"And where are the Republicans?" Gutierrez said. "I don’t see them. I see them scared of the president’s itchy trigger finger, and afraid to stand up to a bully because they are scared of losing their jobs."

When House Republicans released the compromise immigration measure Thursday, even supporters said it didn’t yet have enough support to pass the House. The bill includes other provisions almost certain to be rejected by Democrats, including money for a border wall and new limits on family-based immigration.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.