WASHINGTON — Top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer on Tuesday pulled back an offer of $25 billion for President Donald Trump's long-promised southern border wall, as lawmakers scrambled to figure out how to push a deal to protect 700,000 or more so-called Dreamer immigrants from deportation.
Schumer had made the offer last Friday in a last-ditch effort to head off a government shutdown, then came scalding criticism from his party's liberal activist base that Democrats had given up too easily in reopening the government without more concrete promises on immigration.
"We're going to have to start on a new basis, and the wall offer's off the table," Schumer, D-N.Y., told reporters Tuesday.
The shutdown battle complicated the already difficult search for an immigration pact: GOP hard-liners appeared emboldened, while Democrats absorbed withering criticism from progressives.
Still, there were fresh signs of a willingness to keep hunting for a solution, with a flurry of meetings on Capitol Hill and an assessment from White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders that "I don't think they're that far apart."
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said he'd been to three meetings Tuesday about immigration. "I know there's a lot of skepticism around here and not much trust," he said, "but I do believe that there is a bona fide bipartisan concern about getting this done."
Even if the Senate can come up with the votes to pass a plan, Democrats fear there is little chance such a bill would gain the support of House Republicans.
"There were no commitments made in the House" as legislators worked to end the government shutdown, House GOP Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana said Monday, warning against any "amnesty" measure.
Trump weighed in Tuesday via Twitter: "Nobody knows for sure that the Republicans & Democrats will be able to reach a deal on DACA by February 8, but everyone will be trying....with a big additional focus put on Military Strength and Border Security. The Dems have just learned that a Shutdown is not the answer!"
Cornyn, the No. 2 Senate Republican, said Schumer had promised a $25 billion figure for the wall and other border security measures, though not all of that would have been immediate funding. He called Schumer's withdrawal of the offer "a step backward."
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has committed to trying to reach a deal on immigration and key budget issues by Feb. 8, though Cornyn said Monday that "strikes me as highly difficult."
Instead, the Senate appeared more likely to start a freewheeling debate next month.
"Whoever gets 60 votes wins," said McConnell.
And it remained unclear precisely who was taking the lead in the negotiating.
"If you had a tattoo for every group that's forming, you'd have an arm full of them," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who was working to bring together a new bipartisan group of senators to reach an agreement.
The retreat by Democrats brought an end to the three-day government shutdown but roiled immigration activists who blasted Democrats for caving to Republicans with nothing gained by the promise of a Senate vote.
"Once again, Dreamers are left behind," said Rep. Adriano Espaillat, D-N.Y.
Trump last year announced that he was ending the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA but gave Congress until March 5 to come up with a legislative fix. With the clock ticking, Trump appeared to agree to a pair of deals with Democrats, then backed out and demanded more money for a border wall. He also sought an overhaul of the legal immigration system to prevent immigrants from sponsoring their family members and an end to a visa lottery aimed at expanding diversity.
On the House side, the Republican Study Committee, a group of more than 150 lawmakers, announced its support for a bill written by Reps. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., Raúl Labrador, R-Idaho, and Michael McCaul, R-Texas. Their plan would offer DACA recipients a three-year renewal of legal status, allowing them to continue to live and work in the country with no special path to citizenship. It also contains a host of stringent features that are anathema to Democrats, including reducing legal immigration by 25 percent, adding border patrol agents and denying certain funding to cities that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration authorities.
The White House endorsed that bill, and it appeared to be gaining traction among conservatives. NumbersUSA, a group that advocates for reduced immigration, announcing its support Tuesday.
Read Wednesday's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette for full details.