WASHINGTON — President Trump promised Tuesday to sign what he called a "bill of love" to extend protections to 800,000 immigrants who entered the United States illegally as children — if Congress can work out the details.
"You folks are going to have to come up with a solution," Trump told 25 lawmakers in a remarkable televised negotiation at the White House. "And if you do, I'm going to sign that solution."
But funding for a wall along the border with Mexico remains a sticking point, as Trump insisted that border security remain a part of any deal.
Lawmakers are under a March 5 deadline — imposed by Trump — to come up with a legal fix to the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. DACA, as it's known, is now the main stumbling block holding up a wide range of other Trump administration immigration priorities.
Conservative Republicans in the House want to link DACA to Trump's request for $18 billion for a border wall. That would give immigration talks even more urgency, as the spending bill must pass by Jan. 19 to prevent a government shutdown.
So Trump and his top advisers sat down Tuesday with 25 members of Congress — 16 senators and nine representatives, 15 Republicans and 10 Democrats. And in an unusual move, the White House opened nearly an hour of the meeting to the press.
The Republicans came with a common talking point: Congress needs a permanent fix to immigration enforcement, or else have to deal with the issue again. Democrats said the urgency of saving DREAMers from deportation meant that extending DACA must take priority.
The so-called DREAMers are the children of immigrants who remained in the country illegally — growing up as Americans but without the legal status. Obama's solution was to use his enforcement discretion to give up to 800,000 DREAMers a quasi-legal status, but the Trump administration has said Obama exceeded his authority and that any fix must come from Congress.
Trump said repeatedly on Tuesday that he would sign any bill Congress sends him to make that deferred action program legal. But then he later clarified that such a bill must also include border security measures, including funding for a border wall.
"A clean DACA bill, to me, is a DACA bill where we take care of the 800,000 people," he said. "We take care of them and we also take care of security. That's very important."
Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., the number two Democrat in the Senate, expressed optimism that such a deal could get done.
As of March 5, one thousand people a day will lose their temporary status, Durbin said. “Lives are hanging in the balance. We’ve got the time to do it,” Durbin told Trump.
"We feel that we can put together a combination for the future of DACA as well as border security," said Durbin, sitting to Trump's right. "We want a safe border in America, period, both when it comes to the issues of illegal migration, but also when it comes to drugs and all these other areas."
But Republicans also want two other issues on the table: elimination of the diversity visa lottery program and family-based "chain migration."
"Yes, we’ve got to do DACA, and I agree with you 100%," said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. "But if we do not do something with the security, if we do not do something with the chain migration, we are fooling each other that we solved the problem."
Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, who was not in the meeting, said he was encouraged by Trump's more productive tone. "The fact that he limited things to just the four areas that were talked about — something we have been seeking for a while to see what the limits are—was a very good sign," he said.
After the reporters left, Trump showed even more flexibility, said Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. — especially on the issue of how much money he wants for the border wall.
“I went in very skeptical that anything would be accomplished, but the biggest part of the meeting — the best part — is what the president did actually a little more explanation of what the wall actually means to him,” said Flake, who has been a frequent critic of the president in the past. “The wall is really a fence.”
Tuesday's meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House was scheduled to be closed to reporters, but opened up on short notice. It quickly became perhaps the most extended open discussion between the president and congressional leaders since President Barack Obama's Blair House summit on health care eight years ago. Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., called it "the most fascinating meeting I’ve been involved with in 20-plus years in politics."
"I like opening it up to the media," Trump said. "Because I think they're seeing, more than anything else, that we're all very much on a similar page. We're on the same page."
The open negotiation also came amid growing questions about Trump's command of the issues following the release of a tell-all book last week. Often sitting with his arms crossed and directing the conversation, Trump delved into immigration policy with occasional tangents into earmarks, military spending and whether Oprah Winfrey will run for president. ("I don’t think she’s going to run," Trump said.)
After 55 minutes, Trump finally gave the signal for aides to usher reporters out of the room. "Thank you all very much. I hope we gave you enough material. This should cover you for about two weeks," he said.