By Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A bipartisan Senate plan to protect young illegal immigrants from deportation and pour billions of dollars into border security appeared headed toward a Senate showdown on Thursday as wary Democrats signaled that a solution could be close.
The new bipartisan plan would protect from deportation 1.8 million immigrants, known as "Dreamers," brought to the United States illegally as children.
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Congress is scrambling to act after President Donald Trump ordered the March 5 termination of an Obama-era program giving the young immigrants temporary legal status.
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer noted the difficulties in writing immigration legislation, but added: "We are closer than we have ever been to passing something in the Senate to help the Dreamers." Senate votes on various proposals are expected on Thursday.
As the Senate struggled with a way to end a months-long deadlock, Trump was holding firm to his demand to support a different, sweeping rewrite of U.S. immigration law in a way that could sharply decrease the number of legal immigrants.
In a statement released by the White House, Trump urged the Senate to support legislation by Republican Senator Chuck Grassley that basically embraces the president's legislative wish list on immigration, including scaling back two immigration programs that bring more than 300,000 people into the United States each year.
The Grassley bill is unlikely to win support from many Democrats.
The clash underlined the difficult path any immigration plan faces as Washington remains starkly divided on one of Trump's signature issues. Congress has tried and failed to overhaul immigration policy over the past decade.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, one of the senators who crafted the bipartisan plan, said the parents of the Dreamers, also in the country illegally, would get no safeguards, in a concession to the White House that has riled Democrats.
While several Republicans are co-sponsoring the new bipartisan measure, it was not clear whether there would be enough support from Democrats to pass it with the 60 votes needed in the 100-member Senate. Republicans control the Senate 51-49.
Senator Maize Hirono of Hawaii was among the Democrats who also want to protect millions of parents of Dreamers.
"But I keep uppermost the need to protect the Dreamers and we're talking about 1.8 million people and that goes a long way to me swallowing the compromise," Hirono told reporters.
Democratic senators left a closed-door meeting on the new bipartisan measure expressing reservations about a provision for a $25 billion fund Trump would win to strengthen border security and possibly even construct segments of his long-promised border wall with Mexico.
Democratic Senator Chris Coons told reporters the legislation "makes some very hard concessions" to Republicans.
Referring to Trump's willingness to protect 1.8 million Dreamers and eventually allow them to become citizens, Coons said: "That's a big change in position for a key national Republican leader like President Trump." Coons said he was prepared to vote for the measure.
Trump campaigned in 2016 and has governed on a tough law-and-order stance in regard to immigrants.
FATE IN HOUSE UNCERTAIN
Trump said in September he was rescinding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program, created in 2012 under his Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama. It protects the Dreamers from deportation and offers them work permits. As of last September, about 700,000 people were signed up for DACA.
The program's protections are due to start expiring on March 5, but federal judges have blocked Trump's bid to end DACA while litigation over the matter continues.
Even if the bipartisan immigration plan passes the Senate, it faces an uncertain fate in the House of Representatives, where Republicans hold a larger majority. House Speaker Paul Ryan has said he will not bring up a bill for a vote if it does not have Trump's support.
Ryan said on Wednesday the House "clearly" must address legislation next month to deal with the Dreamers. He told reporters that Trump "did a very good job of putting a sincere offer on the table."
Republican Senator Jeff Flake, one of the bipartisan plan's architects, said he would try to advance it despite Trump's backing for the Grassley bill.
"He can veto it or he can sign it. But we've got to pass it," Flake told reporters.
(Additional reporting by Susan Heavey; Writing by Andy Sullivan and Phil Stewart; Editing by Will Dunham and Peter Cooney)