Trump's Immigration Offer Solidifies GOP Behind Him

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In the midst of the 2016 GOP primary season, few could have predicted that Sen. Marco Rubio would emerge nearly three years later as one of the strongest champions of Donald Trump’s immigration policies, as well as the president’s hard-ball government-shutdown tactics.

But there was the Florida senator on Twitter over the weekend, coming to the president’s defense and unabashedly backing his latest immigration compromise proposal. Rubio also joined Trump in characterizing Democrats as obstructionists who are refusing the deal simply because it would give the president a win.

“POTUS offers to support two bills sponsored by Dems in exchange for Border Security & the instant reaction from Dem leaders is No,” Rubio tweeted Saturday. “Because denying him a win on border matters more to them than paying fed workers or 3 yrs of certainty for TPS & DACA recipients.”

Demeaned by Trump as “Little Marco” while contending for the presidential nomination, Florida’s 47-year-old senior senator is the son of Cuban immigrants whose own grandfather was once ordered to leave the U.S., a decision that was later reversed. In one of the 2016 GOP debates, Rubio, viewed back then as the establishment’s last best hope to bring down Trump, mocked the billionaire’s repeated claim that he alone was responsible for elevating the immigration issue and making it a central piece of the campaign.

“You’re the only person on this stage that has ever been fined for hiring people to work on your projects illegally,” Rubio said.

“I’m the only one on this stage that’s hired people,” Trump fired back: “You haven’t hired one person, you liar.”

The personal vitriol has dissipated over the last three years, however, and there was no trace of it between the two men over the weekend.

The détente demonstrates that Trump’s high-stakes gambit to fulfill his border wall campaign promise has chalked up at least one important political victory: uniting some disparate factions within the Republican Party behind him and against top Democrats in Washington on the thorny issue of the nation’s teetering immigration system.

Even Sen. Mitt Romney, another Republican who has tangled with Trump, voiced support for the president’s Saturday compromise, calling it a “reasonable, good-faith proposal” that he looks forwarding to voting for this week. The effusive support is a dramatic shift from the harsh critique Romney delivered decrying the president’s demeanor and character in his first weeks as Utah’s newest U.S. senator.

Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, a popular longtime member of the Senate GOP leadership, retweeted one of Rubio’s similar posts on Democrats’ opposition to the compromise.

And, after sitting on the sidelines for weeks, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is now getting some skin in the game, having worked with Vice President Mike Pence to help forge the new proposal. McConnell plans to push it through the Senate this week, an effort to box in House Democrats on the issue.

Predictably, voices on the right such as Ann Coulter and immigration groups that support hard-line policies have pilloried Trump’s latest offer. But those same critics view compromise as a dirty word and were never expected to back a deal that must include extended protections for “Dreamers” and other undocumented immigrants living in the country for it to pass the Democratic-controlled House.

Republicans such as Rubio and Sen. Lindsey Graham, two prominent members of the Senate Gang of Eight, the bipartisan group that drafted an unsuccessful comprehensive immigration bill in 2013, know just how hard it is to do and how easy it is to get burned trying.

No matter the outcome, Trump has now earned their loyalty and support for going to the mat over the issue and trying to jump-start negotiations on Saturday. For more than a decade, no president or party leader has been able to break through the gridlock to strike a compromise. In 2014, pro-immigration activists memorably labeled President Obama the “deporter-in-chief” when his deportations hit the 2 million mark.

During that same period, then-House Speaker John Boehner pledged to pass the Gang of Eight’s compromise bill but was forced to back away when his right flank demanded border security first before agreeing to protections for the 11 million illegal immigrants already in the country.

Earning more respect from key Republicans on the issue of immigration will likely help Trump fend off potential 2020 primary challengers, but it also could assist in the short run as well. As House Democrats seemingly move toward impeachment proceedings, Republicans in the Senate, where any impeachment trial would take place, are coming to his defense.

Republican support has shifted in his favor because Trump on Saturday changed not just his tone on immigration but the substance of his policies, GOP insiders say.

Even as Trump continues to alienate Speaker Nancy Pelosi with his taunts and slights, his latest proposal demonstrates a new willingness to give ground on major areas of immigration policy.

In three areas – the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, the Temporary Protected Status program, and asylum for children in Central America – Trump had previously reversed Obama programs. On Saturday, he tamped down his negative rhetoric on immigrants while offering to reprise those programs – at least temporarily—and sign them into law, something Obama tried and failed to get from Congress during his tenure.

In return, Trump wants $5.7 billion to build an estimated 230 miles of border barriers, far less than his original plan calling for $18 billon to construct a 700-mile concrete wall. The proposal also includes funding for items both sides generally support: more technology to scan for drugs in vehicles and an increase in the number of immigration judges to address the lengthy backlog of asylum and other immigration cases.

Democrats have long sought some of these same temporary extensions of legal protections and supported the so-called BRIDGE Act, which contained them, just weeks after Trump’s election.

“We must move on the Bridge Act quickly to protect Dreamers,” Sen. Dick Durbin said in December 2016 about the bill he wrote with Graham and that Sen. Dianne Feinstein co-sponsored.

Fast-forward to this week and Durbin is now saying he would oppose Trump’s Saturday offer because it also includes the $5.7 billion in funds for border barriers. Like nearly all Democrats, Durbin says he only wants to negotiate on the issue once the government re-opens. The pressure will only ratchet up this week with federal workers poised to miss their second paycheck in the longest government shutdown in history.

Even if Trump eventually capitulates and blames Democrats as the party of “no,” the high-stakes showdown won’t be a total loss. For taking on serious political risk when past Congresses and presidents have taken a pass on immigration, the president has earned the respect of influential Republicans.

That’s not inconsequential. Trump may never get his wall as long as Democrats have something to say about it, but he has solidified his reputation as a fighter – one who is simultaneously open to making deals -- and he has a more united, stronger defensive GOP line to show for it.

Susan Crabtree is a veteran Washington reporter who has spent two decades covering the White House and Congress.

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