What Role Will Trump Play In Immigration Debate?

Jan 23, 2018
Originally published on January 23, 2018 3:28 pm
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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Well, one unknown in the path forward on immigration is President Trump. What kind of a deal will he agree to? And how actively will Trump, who prizes himself as a great dealmaker, be flexing his negotiating muscles?

NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins me now from the White House to talk about all of this. Hey, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: So - OK, we just heard Congressman Dent talk about the chances of a bipartisan immigration deal in the House. He sounds somewhat optimistic. What are your thoughts? How likely is it that lawmakers will get this done in a month?

LIASSON: I don't think they're going to get it done in a month. The problem is the House of Representatives. And, yes, big majorities in the country support a deal for the DACA recipients, but not big majorities inside the Republican conference in the House. And that's the key as to whether Paul Ryan, the speaker, will bring it up or not. Now, Charlie Dent was just talking about how he would encourage his leadership to just allow the Senate bill to go on the floor, see if it got the most votes.

But Paul Ryan believes in something called the Hastert Rule - don't bring anything up unless it has a majority of the majority party, unless a majority of Republicans would support it. That's not true with immigration. It would have to be passed with bipartisan votes. And we've seen this movie before where the Senate passes something. In 2013, they passed an immigration bill by 68 votes...

CHANG: Right.

LIASSON: ...With many of the things we're talking about now - path to legalization, end to chain migration, switch to a merit-based system. But it never got a vote in the House because it didn't have the majority of Republicans supporting it.

CHANG: That's absolutely right. Well, I want to talk about what President Trump's role might be in all of this. He was pretty quiet this past weekend as senators tried to work out a deal to end the shutdown. How long can we expect the president to stay in the background in negotiations when it comes to such a big issue? I mean, immigration is his signature campaign issue.

LIASSON: That's - that is the big question. This is his signature issue. Ever since he glided down the escalator and announced his campaign by talking about Mexico sending rapists across the border immigration has been his touchstone issue and the touchstone for his base. And he has been hanging back. Today his budget director was asked, what's the president's bottom line? What does he need? And he said, well, it depends on what we get from Congress. Today the press secretary, Sarah Sanders, sounded a little more conciliatory. She said she doesn't think the two sides are that far apart.

But at some point there will be a need for presidential leadership. He'll have to take the heat, which is what he said he would do. If something gets out of the Senate and over to the House, he'll have to sell the bill to House conservatives and give them cover.

CHANG: So what does the president want when it comes to immigration? I mean, during the campaign it was mostly about the wall, but what about now?

LIASSON: The White House says he has four priorities. He wants for a fix for DACA recipients. He wants funding for the wall. He wants an end to family reunification, or what he calls chain migration. He wants an end to the visa lottery system. But those are his starting points for negotiations. We don't know what he would accept short of a hundred percent of all those things. Many Republicans think that they could get a deal with just robust border security and money for a wall. But we don't know how flexible the president is willing to be, what he thinks would be a win for him and something that he could sell to his base.

Now, the Democrats have been changing their minds. For a while they were willing to give him full funding for the wall. Sounds like that's been withdrawn now. So I think the action is with the 22 moderate senators, bipartisan group of senators who are trying to work something out. If they come up with something, will McConnell stay true to his promise, let it be voted on? And then will Trump work to pass it in the House?

CHANG: All right, and going really quickly to Davos, President Trump leaves tomorrow night for the World Economic Forum. What's the message he's taking there?

LIASSON: The message is America's open for business. He's gotten the stock market going. Unemployment is down. When he goes to this uber-globalist gathering it does not sound like he plans to show up with a populist pitchfork. Instead, at the White House they're saying he's going to be a salesman for America and working international companies, trying to convince them to invest in America.

CHANG: NPR's Mara Liasson, thanks.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.