Democrats find little to lose in Trump talks
Both sides cautious on his willingness to play ball on DACA
WASHINGTON — Democratic lawmakers shut out of governance for much of this year now find themselves at the center of high-stakes negotiations with President Donald Trump that could achieve a prize they have sought for nearly a decade: permanent legal status for hundreds of thousands of unauthorized immigrants.
For a small but vocal contingent of Democrats, these talks are fraught with peril, largely because of their total distrust of a man who began his presidential campaign two years ago describing unauthorized immigrants from Mexico as rapists.
But for Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., there is little to lose. If the deal falls apart, the Democratic leaders will be right where they began — no better and no worse. And a successful negotiation would achieve something they failed to pull off when their party controlled both Congress and the White House.
“Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” Schumer said in an interview. “We thought we had an opportunity to get something good done, and let’s see what happens.”
Schumer and Pelosi are pressing ahead with the president’s top advisers, hoping to reach a deal in a matter of weeks to enshrine in law an Obama-era executive order called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. It protects from deportation unauthorized immigrants brought to the United States as children. Trump has criticized DACA as executive overreach, but he has also expressed empathy for the young immigrants it protects.
The deep fear among Democrats skeptical of the negotiations is that, in exchange for permanent protections for Dreamers, Trump will win broad new powers and resources to enforce immigration laws that go beyond adding more agents or technology along the border. The cost of a permanent DREAM Act, they say, could be a new and emboldened deportation force across the nation that undermines civil liberties and terrorizes law-abiding immigrants.
“We’re going to have to be very leery and very careful of the slippery slope,” said Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill.
Washington heads are still spinning from a negotiating dynamic that no one expected — not Schumer and Pelosi, and not their Republican counterparts, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
Trump spent his first seven months in an entirely partisan bubble, working only with Republicans trying, and failing, to pass conservative legislation — notably a replacement to the Affordable Care Act.
But Trump’s frustration with GOP leaders reached a boiling point during the failed effort to repeal former president Barack Obama’s signature health care law, losing in the Senate by one vote when three Republicans opposed Trump. From the White House’s perspective, that frustration — and Trump’s pivot to working with Democrats — is justified.
Congressional Republicans, meanwhile, worry that Pelosi and Schumer could outsmart Trump. The two are seasoned dealmakers with combined service of more than 65 years on Capitol Hill, while Trump is a newcomer who honed his negotiating skills in real estate.
On Thursday, Trump went back and forth on this issue, at times seeming to endorse the Democratic version of events but then backing away from citizenship, which staunch conservatives vehemently oppose.
Ultimately, if the deal comes together, it is most likely to happen fast — in weeks and not months, Schumer said. “I’d like to see it within the next little while. Look, I don’t want to set a date. Soon. Soon is the right word.”