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A burst of acrimony on Capitol Hill threatens immigration deal

Washington Post

A burst of public acrimony across Capitol Hill Tuesday exposed how much President Donald Trump's use of a vulgar expression during a meeting on immigration and border security had set back negotiations on the issue.

Under intense questioning from both Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen confirmed that the president had used "tough language" in the meeting Thursday.

At the same hearing, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who had joined Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., at the meeting in trying to persuade Trump to sign onto their bipartisan immigration proposal, said the negotiations had turned into an "s-show."

And in a radio interview, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., a conservative ally of Trump's, dismissed the bipartisan pact as "utterly ridiculous" and said it "probably set us back in trying to find a deal."

Behind the drama, a Friday deadline loomed to pass a new spending bill in time to avert a government shutdown. Aides to top congressional leaders met again Tuesday to try salvaging a deal to meet a March deadline to legalize the status of undocumented immigrants brought to this country as children, or "dreamers," while also beefing up border security. But leaders publicly doubted that they had time to pair such a deal with a short-term plan to keep the government open beyond Friday.

"With no imminent deadline on #immigration, and with bipartisan talks well underway, there is no reason why Congress should hold government funding hostage over the issue of illegal immigration," Majority Leader Mitch McConnell , R-Ky., tweeted on Tuesday.

And while Graham continued to seek support for his pact with Durbin, White House officials declared the proposal dead and began encouraging lawmakers to start over.

Aides to leaders from both parties and both chambers gathered Tuesday in the office of House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., to keep negotiations going. In addition, the White House continues to seek a vote on a separate, conservative proposal floated last week by two immigration hard-liners, Reps. Robert Goodlatte, R-Va., and Mark Meadows, R-N.C., according to Trump's legislative affairs director, Marc Short.

Meanwhile, Republican leaders kept pushing Tuesday to pass a short-term, stand-alone spending bill with no immigration reforms included. Talks included the possibility of provisions to court both liberal and conservative votes: eliminating a tax on high-priced health plans including in the Affordable Care Act, as well as a proposal to renew the Children's Health Insurance Program for six years.

If such a measure succeeds, it would likely push negotiations on immigration into February, an outcome that Democrats had hoped to avoid because of the leverage they believed they had to exact an immigration deal alongside the spending deadline.

The lack of progress and acrimonious words Tuesday exposed the extent to which Trump's vulgar comments had injected mistrust into already-tense negotiations.

"You can't remember the words of your commander in chief," Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., said to Nielsen during the hearing, slamming his hand to the table, his voice shaking. "I find that unacceptable."

Durbin began his questioning of Nielsen by saying, "I hope you remember me. We were at two meetings together" last week. He asked her to clarify what kind of language Trump used.

"Ah, let's see," Nielsen said. "Strong language, there was - I apologize, I don't remember a specific word." She added that "general profanity" was used by several attendees.

"Did you hear me use profanity?" Durbin asked.

"No, sir, nor did I," Nielsen said, adding that Graham had used "tough language" in response to Trump.

Later, Graham detailed how Durbin had phoned Trump around 10 a.m. Thursday to let him know about their bipartisan breakthrough. Graham said that he and Durbin then made arrangements to meet with Trump at noon.

"So what happened between 10 and 12?" Graham asked Nielsen.

"I don't know," Nielsen said.

"I don't either, and I'm going to find out," Graham said. He credited Trump for hosting lawmakers the previous Tuesday and encouraging them to present a bipartisan deal.

"Tuesday we had a president that I was proud to golf with, call my friend, who understood immigration had to be bipartisan," Graham said, adding later: "I don't know where that guy went, but I want him back."

Graham blamed hard-liners on the president's staff - not the president - for sinking a potential bipartisan deal.

"We cannot do this with people in charge at the White House who have an irrational view of how to fix immigration," Graham told reporters.

The public exchanges also showed how much advocates for both sides are seeking to reach Trump directly.

During a Senate floor speech, Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., told Trump: "Everyone is talking about how bigoted your comments were last week."

"If you want to begin the long road back to prove you're not prejudiced or bigoted, support the bipartisan compromise that three Democrats and three Republicans have put before you," Schumer said.

But in a radio interview on "The Hugh Hewitt Show," popular with conservative listeners, Cotton said Trump had already agreed with Democrats to permanently legalize dreamers.

"That's his concession to their position," Cotton said as he called on Democrats to also agree to restrict family migration policy, which conservatives like Cotton deride as "chain migration," and to curb a diversity lottery system that grants visas to 55,000 people from countries with low immigration each year.

"If the Democrats want to shut down the government over this, they can," Cotton said. "They have the ability to filibuster any bill in the Senate. I don't think that will work out very well for them, so I suspect they will not."

During the Judiciary Committee hearing, Durbin and Nielsen also revealed that Trump had pressed lawmakers in the Thursday meeting to provide $20 billion this year so that a new wall along the U.S.-Mexico border could be constructed in the coming year. That's more than the $18 billion the Trump administration told Congress earlier this month it wants to build out physical barriers over the next decade.

"I think the president is encouraging us to go as quickly as we can," Nielsen said. "As you know, it's a very complicated issue, building the wall, for a whole variety of - a whole variety of reasons."

Durbin dismissed Trump's request as "physically, legally impossible as a condition" for giving dreamers permanent legal status.

At the White House, Trump dismissed reports that he had called for more immigrants from Norway and other parts of Europe during the Oval Office encounter.

"I want them to come in from everywhere - everywhere," he told reporters.

Trump also met with Rep. Mia Love, R-Utah, the only black Republican woman in Congress, whose parents are from Haiti. She was sharply critical of Trump's comments in the immigration meeting last week.

In a statement, Love said she held a "substantive and productive" 30-minute meeting with Trump and she pledged to work on a bipartisan solution for dreamers and border security.

At the Capitol, Short, who met with aides to top House and Senate leaders, said negotiators are "fairly optimistic there could be a deal" on immigration. But doing so this week, he said, would be "fairly herculean."

In a sign that the White House is still trying to work with Democrats, White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly is scheduled to meet Wednesday morning with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, a bloc he has sparred with in the past over immigration policy.

During Tuesday's hearing, Nielsen served as the proxy for Democrats eager to vent their frustrations with Trump. At one point, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., persistently questioned her over Trump's campaign pledge to make Mexico pay for new construction along the southern border.

"Have we opened an account that Mexico can put the money in to pay for it?" Leahy asked. "What arrangements do we have with Mexico to pay for it?"

"I know that we have arrangements with Mexico to secure our border . . ." Nielsen said, before Leahy cut her off.

"Do we have arrangements with them to pay for the wall, as President Trump promised the American people he would do?" he asked, raising his voice. "That's an easy answer, yes or no."

"I am not aware. I don't know what you mean by arrangement. We have a lot of agreements with them to increase border security," Nielsen replied.

"Are any of them to pay for a wall?" Leahy asked.

"How do you mean pay, sir?" Nielsen responded. "Do you mean fees? Do you mean through - there's a variety of ways."

"Well, usually when something is paid for you pay for it with money," Leahy said.

Nielsen did not directly answer the question about a bank account for Mexican border wall deposits.

"My priority is to increase border security and to build that wall, that will work," she said. "That's my priority, sir. That's what I'm focused on."

The Washington Post's Josh Dawsey, Mike DeBonis and Erica Werner contributed to this report.

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