If President Donald Trump wants to tackle immigration, he should “send a bill over” to the Senate. That’s the view of Sen. Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who was a member of the “gang of eight” that drafted the 2013 immigration overhaul that passed the Senate before stalling in the House.
“I think it would be helpful for him to do it. I’m encouraged by some of the things I hear. We got 68 votes for a bipartisan bill that I was one of the chief architects of,” Graham said.
Graham said the 2013 legislation allowed for merit-based immigration, something, he pointed out, Trump mentioned in his joint session address on Tuesday.
The three-term senator said that he thought Democratic votes could be mustered for funding Trump’s proposed wall along the border with Mexico if it came as part of a comprehensive package akin to the gang of eight plan.
“Absolutely, without any doubt. What you’ll never do is get a partisan bill passed through the Senate that basically deports everybody, that you can’t tell the difference between a grandmother and a gang member,” Graham said. “There is no path for a bill like that.”
Graham indicated that the potential $12 billion to $15 billion price tag of the wall could be handled since there is a case to be made that border security is an emergency.
“We can call it the greatest wall in the history of walls, I don’t care,” he said. “We’ll call it the Trump wall, I don’t care how we do it. I just want to get there.”
Sen. Marco Rubio, who worked with Graham on the immigration overhaul, said Trump’s apparent interest in immigration could get the issue on the Senate’s radar.
“I mean, presidents set the agenda,” the Florida Republican said.
Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, a third GOP member of the 2013 immigration gang, said Wednesday that Congress will have to debate how to deal with undocumented immigrants, particularly children currently protected under the deferred action program that was implemented under President Barack Obama.
“Those kids are going to be timed out of the program,” Flake said. “So it’s not something that you can ignore or say we’ll do it later. It’s got to be done with Congress because that’s the only way you can do it legally.”
Asked before the Presidents Day recess if Congress should play a role in addressing undocumented immigrants, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said, “The president has a lot of latitude in this area and I think I’ll wait and react to what he chooses to do.”
Graham said he wished Trump had taken more time to talk specifically about what he wants to see in terms of policy for addressing the 11 million or so undocumented individuals in the country, including expanding on his comments to network news anchors over lunch on Tuesday.
“The time is right for an immigration bill, as long as there is compromise on both sides,” Trump said, according to CBS News and other outlets. Reports also indicated there were assurances made in that meeting about protection from deportation for beneficiaries of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, often referred to as Dreamers.
“Apparently, he opened the door with some reporters and just gave a little crack last night, but I’ll take what I can get. I’m looking to solve problems,” Graham said.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, who was among the Democrats involved in crafting the 2013 immigration plan that never moved in the House, referred to Trump’s comments to the TV anchors when speaking on the Senate floor Wednesday morning.
“It was so funny he spoke to a bunch of cosmopolitan news anchors and mentioned maybe he will change his views on immigration and the media got into a buzz about that,” the New York Democrat said. “The speech he gave was one of the most anti-immigrant speeches that we heard any president ever give — saying one thing, doing another.”
“Now, it’s not the hypocrisy that bugs us, although it’s there; it’s the fact that he’s not helping middle-class America,” Schumer said.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials declined to provide any witnesses for a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing on Wednesday, and the White House appears to be refining its approach to immigration policies.
But as optimistic as Graham was Wednesday, he also had a message for the enforcement hard-liners in the White House and elsewhere in the Trump administration.
“There’ll never be a bill passed through the Senate that has mass deportation [of] the 11 million, and I think the president’s beginning to understand that,” Graham said. “This president may actually be able to pull off immigration reform because he has credibility with the hard right, who has called everything amnesty.”
Bridget Bowman contributed to this report.