Republicans wrestle with immigration as deadlines loom
Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY). (AFP)

U.S. Republicans at a countryside retreat grappled on Thursday with sharp internal divisions over immigration policy, a debate closely enmeshed with a deadline to fund the government that looms next week.


Congress needs to agree by Feb. 8 on another temporary spending bill. A failure to do that last month led to a three-day government shutdown, resolved in part by a promise by Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell to hold a vote on a plan to extend protections for young "Dreamer" immigrants.

President Donald Trump, whose election success hinged partly on his tough line on immigration, has said he is open to letting 1.8 million young immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children stay in the country and eventually become citizens.

But he made that offer contingent on new curbs for other types of legal immigrants, and on a $25 billion fund to pay for his long-promised wall along the border with Mexico.

"I know that the Senate is planning to bring an immigration bill to the floor in the coming weeks, and I am asking today that the framework we submitted be the bill that the Senate votes on," Trump was set to tell the retreat, according to excerpts of a speech released by the White House.

Some of Trump's terms are unpalatable to Democrats. But while the president's fellow Republicans control Congress, the proposal is also too liberal for some in the party, leaving Republican leaders to try to find a narrow compromise path.

Conservative Republicans in the House of Representatives are uneasy about extending what they call "amnesty" to anyone in the United States illegally, but some have said they are willing to go along with the plan providing they are linked to the other hardline measures proposed by Trump.

Many Republicans in the Senate who have been in talks with Democrats on the issue - because they will need some Democratic support for any bill in that chamber - believe that the focus should be a narrower bill: one that addresses the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and Trump's border wall.

The issue of the Dreamers arose after Trump last year canceled DACA, which former Democratic President Barack Obama had created to protect Dreamers, and gave Congress until early March to draft a solution.

"I think that if we can solve DACA and border security that may be the best I can hope for," Senator John Thune, a member of Republican leadership, told reporters.

Representative Mark Meadows, head of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, said however that a pared-back deal would be a "non-starter" with conservative House Republicans.

"Listen, we are not going to do a few billion dollars for border security and have the same problem a decade from now, two decades from now," Meadows told reporters. "If we’re going to solve the problem, let’s solve the problem."

Trump was due to speak to the retreat at a West Virginia resort at 12:30 p.m. ET (1730 GMT) on Thursday. In a series of morning Twitter messages he cast the blame on Democrats for inaction so far on the Dreamers.

MIDTERM ELECTIONS LOOM

The retreat for congressional Republicans is aimed at rallying around legislative priorities before congressional elections in November that will be seen as a referendum on the party's ability to govern and on Trump's presidency.

With control of the White House and both chambers in Congress, Republicans had mixed legislative success last year: enacting a $1.5 trillion tax overhaul but failing to make good on a key campaign promise to repeal and replace Obama's signature healthcare law.

Congress has also failed to pass a long-term budget, instead relying on a number of temporary spending bills. Current funding for federal agencies runs out Feb. 8, and Congress also needs to lift the federal debt limit this month to avoid a government default.

Trump wants Congress to agree to new spending on infrastructure. Republicans need the support of at least some Democrats to push major bills through the Senate.

"Will be planning Infrastructure and discussing Immigration and DACA, not easy when we have no support from the Democrats," Trump tweeted on Thursday morning.

All 435 seats in the House and 34 seats in the 100-seat Senate are at stake in November's election. More than 40 Republicans, including nine committee chairmen, have announced they are leaving Congress or will not seek re-election.

(Reporting by Amanda Becker; Writing by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Frances Kerry)