As much of the country was gripped Wednesday by horrific images from the shootings at a Florida high school, two dozen senior White House officials worked frantically into the night to thwart what they considered a different national security threat.
The looming danger on the minds of the officials was a piece of legislation scheduled for a vote the next day in the Senate. It was designed to spare hundreds of thousands of young illegal aliens, known as Dreamers, from deportation -- but to the men and women huddled in a makeshift war room in a Department of Homeland Security facility, the measure would blow open U.S. borders to lawless intruders.
"We're going to bury it," one senior administration official told a reporter at about 10:30 p.m. that evening.
Shortly before 1 a.m. Thursday, Homeland Security released a three-page statement warning that the bipartisan bill would create "a Sanctuary Nation where ignoring the rule of law is encouraged." Hours later, Attorney General Jeff Sessions declared the bill would "invite a mad rush of illegality across our borders." White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders issued a veto threat.
President Donald Trump's proposed immigration framework, sent to Congress late last month, included a path to citizenship for 1.8 million young illegal aliens protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program -- more than twice as many as were enrolled in the program. Those illegal aliens are called Dreamers after the never-passed DREAM Act, or Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, that would have given protections similar to those provided by DACA.
The president's demands for large cuts to legal family immigration programs and the elimination of the diversity visa lottery were intended to balance out the legalization of the Dreamers, the aides said.
Thanks to a push from Trump's hard-line advisers and key lawmakers, curbs to legal immigration became a central part of the GOP demands.
The bipartisan plan from the Senate's self-styled "Common Sense Coalition" did not touch the diversity visa program and made relatively minor changes to family immigration rules. But as the "war room" of administration lawyers and policy experts examined the 64-page text on Wednesday, it was a handwritten note on the final page that set off the loudest alarm bells.
That section dealt with setting in law Homeland Security's priorities for enforcement. Under the proposal, the agency would focus its powers on illegal aliens with felonies or multiple misdemeanors, who were national security threats and who had arrived in the country after a certain date.
Scribbled in the margins was a date: June 30, 2018.
The administration team was dumbstruck: In addition to making it harder for the U.S. to deport all of those already here illegally, lawmakers were opening the door to a surge of new illegal aliens by setting an effective "amnesty" date four months in the future.
"No one who has worked on immigration issues in the administration or on the Hill was aware of any legislation that had ever been proposed and scheduled to receive a vote on the floor of the Senate that created an amnesty program effectively for those who arrive in the future," said a Homeland Security official who helped lead the review. "That would clearly and unequivocally encourage a massive wave of illegal immigration and visa overstays."
Democrats later explained the date was an estimate of when key provisions in the bill would begin to take effect after an implementation period. The Trump administration had other objections, but officials said it was that provision that persuaded them to ramp up the coordinated effort to sink the bill.
Republican moderates were surprised at the administration's reaction to the bill. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. accused the Department of Homeland Security of "acting more like a political organization intent on poisoning the well." He laid blame at the feet of White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller and a former Republican congressional aide who now works at the department -- both considered immigration hard-liners.
The same senior official who spoke to The Washington Post on Wednesday night disputed Graham's account, emphasizing that it was the Homeland Security team, which included a number of career officials who are not political appointees, that led the way in opposing the bipartisan proposal. Given the condensed timetable for the Senate's floor votes, administration officials said they had no choice but to respond quickly and forcefully.
"This was a pretty dangerous situation," the official said. "Saying that we had 24 hours to prevent one of the greatest enforcement catastrophes in modern times but somehow we should have calibrated that statement more is ridiculous Monday-morning quarterbacking."
Trump threw his support behind an alternative bill from Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, which more closely hewed to his immigration framework. That bill got the least support -- 39 votes in favor and 60 against -- of any of the plans the Senate considered.
White House allies said the president feels emboldened given that Senate Democrats caved three days into a partial government shutdown last month, giving up their initial demands to tie an immigration deal to a must-pass spending bill. Also, Trump's success in enacting the concession for the $25 billion for his border wall has now become a starting point in any future talks, they said.
"He's been very consistent and firm in supporting a four-pillar approach, and I expect him to remain that way," said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., head of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, which is pushing Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., to support a more restrictive immigration bill.
But Trump's rivals said Republicans will be tagged as the anti-immigration party in a nation in which the fastest-growing voting blocs are Hispanics and Asian Americans.
A Democratic Senate aide who was involved in the negotiations but was not authorized to speak on the record said Trump would get the blame.
"He ended the program," the aide said of Trump. "He's the one who repeatedly said no to bipartisan efforts to fix it."
Information for this article was contributed by Ed O'Keefe of The Washington Post.
A Section on 02/18/2018
Print Headline: Timeline objections ended Dreamer deal