WASHINGTON (AP) — Searching for a bipartisan deal to avoid a government shutdown, President Donald Trump suggested Tuesday that an immigration agreement could be reached in two phases — first by addressing young immigrants and border security with what he called a "bill of love," then by making comprehensive changes that have long eluded Congress.
Trump presided over a lengthy meeting with Republican and Democratic lawmakers seeking a solution for hundreds of thousands of young people who were brought to the U.S. as children and living here illegally. Trump last year ended the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which shielded more than 700,000 people from deportation and gave them the right to work legally. He gave Congress until March to find a fix.
The president, congressional Republicans and Democrats expressed optimism for a deal just 10 days before a government shutdown deadline. Trump said he was willing to be flexible in finding an agreement as Democrats warned that the lives of hundreds of thousands of immigrants hung in the balance.
"I think my positions are going to be what the people in this room come up with," Trump said during a Cabinet Room meeting with a bipartisan group of nearly two dozen lawmakers, adding, "I am very much reliant upon the people in this room." A group of journalists observed the meandering meeting for an extraordinary length of time — about 55 minutes — that involved Trump seeking input from Democrats and Republicans alike in a freewheeling exchange on the contentious issue.
"My head is spinning from all the things that were said by the president and others in that room in the course of an hour and a half," said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. "But the sense of urgency, the commitment to DACA, the fact that the president said to me privately as well as publicly, 'I want to get this done,' I'm going to take him as his word."
The head of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Rep. Michelle Grisham Lujan, D-N.M., said late Tuesday she was "encouraged" by Trump's words and would work "in good faith" toward a deal. Some of the group's members have taken a hard line against surrendering too much in a compromise with Trump.
The White House said after the meeting that lawmakers had agreed to narrow the scope of the negotiations to four areas: border security, family-based "chain migration," the visa lottery and the DACA policy. Democrats and Republicans are set to resume negotiations Wednesday.
But the exchange raised questions about how far Trump would push for his high-profile border wall.
In describing the need for a wall, the president said it didn't need to be a "2,000-mile wall. We don't need a wall where you have rivers and mountains and everything else protecting it. But we do need a wall for a fairly good portion."
Trump has long made that case, saying even during his campaign his border wall didn't need to be continuous, thanks to natural landscape barriers. And he has said he would be open to using fencing for some portions as well.
The unusually public meeting laid bare a back-and-forth between the parties more typically confined to closed-door negotiations. At one point, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, asked Trump if he would support a "clean" DACA bill now with a commitment to pursue a comprehensive immigration overhaul later.
Trump responded, "I would like it. ... I think a lot of people would like to see that but I think we have to do DACA first." House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., interjected, saying, "Mr. President, you need to be clear though," that legislation involving the so-called Dreamers would need to include border security.