By DEAN DeCHIARO and BRIDGET BOWMAN, CQ ROLL CALL
President Donald Trump might be open to comprehensive immigration legislation — or maybe not.
Sen. Joe Manchin IIItold reporters following his meeting with Trump and other senators on Thursday that the president was open to the so-called Gang of Eight immigration bill that passed the Senate in 2013 with a supermajority but never saw the light of day in the House.
After the meeting, Manchin told CQ Roll Call that the senators in the room “were all pleasantly surprised” that Trump said he was open to reviewing that legislation. “He’s very inquisitive, you know? And realizes that we don’t have a good immigration policy in the United States, and that was very refreshing to hear because we know we don’t.”
But the White House immediately threw cold water on any nascent movement on immigration. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer essentially shot down the notion that Trump is open to the legislation, and told reporters the president opposes the legislation.
A White House official confirmed the president is opposed to the 2013 Senate bill, noting Spicer called it “amnesty” in an announced gaggle following his briefing when describing Trump’s view of that measure. Trump, during the meeting, said he is “willing to look at” anything the Gang of Eight might come up with, and expressed his support for the group trying again, the official said.
Manchin said that it was Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who raised the issue during their meeting and was explicit about what the bill did.
“So at that time, that’s when, I think it was Sen. Alexander at the time, brought it up and says, ‘I believe you can be the president that changes that.’ And then explained to him the Gang of Eight, the bill that we had, and he basically seemed very interested in knowing more about that bill and people getting together and breaking it down and let’s look at it,” Manchin told CQ Roll Call.
“Senator Alexander thinks it is appropriate to allow the president to characterize his own position,” said a spokeswoman for Alexander. “But the senator did suggest that it is important to fix our immigration system and that the president is in a unique position to help do that.”
The 2013 immigration bill, had it been signed into law, would have ramped up interior enforcement and border security in return for a pathway to legal status for a majority of the 11 million people living illegally in the United States. The bill passed the Senate by a 68-32 vote, but then-Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, declined to allow House consideration, due to pressure from conservatives.
The pathway to citizenship is widely denounced by conservatives as “amnesty.”
Years later, the bill’s legacy put current Speaker Paul D. Ryan in a precarious situation as he succeeded Boehner in late 2015. Ryan’s past support for an immigration overhaul was a red flag to the same conservatives who led to Boehner’s resignation, and the Wisconsin Republican signed off on a letter vowing not to allow votes on an immigration bill while former President Barack Obama was in office.
The Gang of Eight senators — four Democrats and four Republicans — that spearheaded the bill’s advancement have gone in different directions. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., distanced himself from the bill after its passage as critics assailed him for supporting amnesty. He began talking about the need to enhance border security first.
During Rubio’s unsuccessful 2016 presidential bid, Trump hammered him as soft on illegal immigration.
And Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., possibly wary of Rubio’s demise, declined to discuss another go at the bill when he was running re-election last year.
Prior to Trump’s victory, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., a member of the Gang of Eight, had predicted a bright future for immigration legislation in 2017, though he pinned that hope on Trump suffering a historic defeat in the November election.
To most observers, Trump’s victory — driven in part by his strong anti-immigration rhetoric — was a death knell for a comprehensive fix.
Since his election, Trump has put an emphasis on building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. He also said he wants to deport 2 million to 3 million undocumented immigrants who commit crimes.
In addition to Manchin and Alexander, Trump met with Democratic Sens. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Jon Tester of Montana, Chris Coons of Delaware, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, and Michael Bennet of Colorado.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas and Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia were also in the meeting. Bennet was the only attendee who was also a member of the Gang of Eight.
Tester confirmed immigration came up in the meeting, but said the GOP senators in the room said the comprehensive bill was a non-starter.
“I think the president is very open to have a solution to the immigration problem. John Cornyn and Chuck Grassley pretty much said that the bill wouldn’t work, that the Gang of Eight put forth,” Tester said. “I think [Trump] was open to trying to find a solution. I think he understands it has to come from the federal level.”
That gibes with Manchin’s read on the situation, too, although he maintained Trump was warm to it. “He said basically, ‘Why don’t you all get together and let’s see if we can look at it.’ Well, John Cornyn, Gov. Cornyn, I mean, Sen. Cornyn, our friend, had opposed that bill, because he’s on the border, he had other concerns. Chuck Grassley had other concerns. But that did not deter President Trump’s interest in saying let’s know more about it,” Manchin said.
Sen. David Perdue, an early Trump supporter, said he was not surprised or concerned that Trump seemed open to the bill, though he believes a comprehensive approach would not be successful.
“This is president that has already demonstrated that he’s listening to people,” the Georgia Republican said. “This is a president that’s trying to get to solutions on immigration. He ran on that as an issue and the only thing I’m saying is I personally believe that breaking these issues into their components is a much better way to deal with the changes we got to make.”
Ryan Lucas and John T. Bennett contributed to this report.