Politics

Trump Backs GOP Immigration Bill, but Rift Within Party Widens

Senate’s No. 2 Republican sees ‘opportunity’ for Congress amid WH ‘chaos’

Activists demonstrate in Washington against President Donald Trump’s immigration policies in May. On Wednesday, Trump threw his backing behind new immigration legislation by Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

President Donald Trump on Wednesday waded into the politically choppy waters of immigration law alongside two fellow Republicans, but the brief image of party unity failed to completely obscure a growing rift with other GOP senators.

Trump hosted Republican Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and and David Perdue of Georgia, a longtime ally, at the White House to discuss their legislation that would impose a skills-based criteria on individuals hoping to obtain U.S. citizenship. It was a moment of Republican comity after weeks of slowly increasing tensions between Trump and the Senate GOP conference.

Moments after issuing a statement lambasting lawmakers for even weighing in on new sanctions on Russia, Iran and North Korea, the president on Wednesday hailed the legislation as proposing “the most significant reform to the immigration system in half a century,” declaring it a “historic and very vital proposal."

“As a candidate, I campaigned on establishing a merit-based immigration system that protects U.S. workers and taxpayers. And that is why we are here today: merit-based,” the president said. If made law, he said, the bill would “reduce poverty, increase wages, and save taxpayers billions and billions of dollars.”

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New preferences

Cotton and Perdue’s bill would alter how the U.S. government issues green cards by proposing to install English-language, education and “high skills” preferences, while proposing to end preferences for extended family members and adult children of undocumented workers, among other proposals.

Cotton said the bill would allow American workers to “get a decent pay raise and have a higher standard of living,” while also making the United States more competitive globally. “Our current [immigration] system simply doesn’t do that,” the Arkansas Republican said.

Addressing Trump, Perdue called their shared campaign message about “growing the economy” the main reason “you are standing here and why I am standing here.” The Georgia Republican and former corporate executive also painted the existing immigration system as an anchor on the U.S. economy.

“Right now, only one out of 15 immigrants that come into our country come in with skills that are employable. We need a new approach,” he said. “As business guys, Mr. President, you and I understand we need a new approach.”

Ironically, Cotton and Perdue modeled much of their bill off immigration policies adopted in recent years by Canada and Australia, two longtime U.S. allies that Trump has accused since taking office of trying to dupe Washington.

Immigration was a big issue for candidate Trump, and President Trump has continued to bang that drum since taking office.

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An overhaul to the country’s immigration laws remains popular among Trump’s largely white, Southern and working-class Rust Belt base. And like any White House, Trump’s is mindful of what its political core of voters wants him to do. The president himself is fond of letting those voters know they are on his mind.

“We have a tremendous base,” Trump told reporters on Monday as he introduced his new chief of staff, retired Marine Corps Gen. John F. Kelly.

But the realities of the Senate suggest the president and his team should tread lightly on the topic. Despite the White House fanfare, the measure was immediately criticized by other Senate Republicans.

Work shortages

“I’m all for skills and merit-based immigration but … we’re short of workers,” said Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson. “We need migrant laborers to milk our dairy cows.”

If made law, the Trump-Cotton-Perdue bill would “harm economic growth,” Johnson said.

And Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who is one of the chamber’s proponents of an immigration overhaul, said in a statement he opposes parts of the bill that “would reduce legal immigration by half, including many immigrants who work legally in our agriculture, tourism and service industries.”

Graham also said the legislation “will not only hurt our agriculture, tourism and service economy in South Carolina, it incentivizes more illegal immigration as positions go unfilled.”

Polls also suggest trouble for the trio’s bill. For instance, one Morning Consult-Politico poll found 77 percent of registered Republicans surveyed trust their party more than Democrats on the issue. But just what Republicans, including some Trump backers, want Washington to do on the issue appears to be changing.

“Republicans’ and Republican-leaning independents’ appetite for decreased immigration has fallen since Trump’s election,” reported the Gallup organization, which conducted a poll on the issue last month. “Whereas six in 10 wanted less immigration last year, this figure is now slightly less than half (48 percent)” of that group.

Senatorial rumblings

Beyond immigration, Republican-on-Republican jabs are suddenly as common as GOP members and Trump lashing out at Democrats.

Trump, Cotton and Perdue were all smiles in the Roosevelt Room of the executive mansion as they unveiled the immigration legislation. But just beneath the surface, there is growing annoyance, distrust and signs aplenty of the early innings of an intraparty blame game as the dog days of August approach without a signature Trump-era Republican legislative feat.

The Senate’s No. 2 Republican, Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas, on Wednesday acknowledged tensions between the White House and GOP members. He said communication and coordination have been suffering.

“People like me, we want him to be successful because I believe in the policies he ran on and won on. But it’s hard when there’s so much chaos and confusion” inside the White House, Cornyn told reporters.

“Historically, the Congress has not always deferred to an administration when it came to policies. … I think this is an opportunity for Congress to reassert itself, and congressional leadership on a variety of issues … that we (GOP lawmakers) should take advantage of,” the Texas Republican said.

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One Republican senator, granted anonymity late last week to be candid, groaned when asked about the constant stream of headlines from the West Wing.

“It’s just endless chaos,” the senator said, adding: “It has an impact on the agenda, too.”

That senator, and others, have been looking to the fall and beyond, when Republicans will need Democratic votes to pass legislation.

“Part of it is his popularity. As long as he remains in the high 30s, it’s going to be tough to get Democrats to come over,” the Republican senator said. “You can have the [GOP] base, but that doesn’t move red-state Democrats. And you’ve got to have that if you’re going to get the agenda through. Once we’re through with reconciliation, we’ll have to get 60 votes for everything. Right now, that’s very tough.”

Also consider Trump’s statement on the sanctions bill and White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ comment on Tuesday when asked if the steady drip of Russia-related information that has hindered the president is also serving as an anchor on his shared agenda with Republican lawmakers.

“I think what's hurting the legislative agenda is Congress’ inability to get things passed,” Sanders shot back. Republicans, notably, have majorities in both chambers.

[Was President at Trump Tower When Son Met Russian Lawyer?]

Her comment came after a reporter, during her daily press briefing, read a comment from Graham, who spoke on NBC’s “Today Show” about the Trump team’s initial denial that the president played a role in crafting an incomplete statement from his eldest son about a meeting with a Russian lawyer he thought was bringing Kremlin-produced dirt on Hillary Clinton.

“If this is true,” Graham said of a Washington Post report that forced Sanders to admit Trump helped craft that statement aboard Air Force One after a G20 summit, “it was a bad decision by the president, which will make us ask more questions. When you get caught in a lie about one thing, that makes it hard to say we'll just let the other stuff go.”

And over the weekend, Trump took to Twitter to say senators from his own party “look like fools” and are “quitters” for moving on from a failed effort to pass health care legislation and conference with the House to possibly get a bill to his desk.

Joe Williams and Andrew Siddons contributed to this report.Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.