By Richard Cowan and Susan Cornwell
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The White House said on Friday that President Donald Trump supported both Republican immigration bills being considered in the House of Representatives, offering a lifeline after the president suggested earlier that he opposed the more moderate bill.
In an interview on Fox News Channel early on Friday, Trump appeared to blast one of two delicately crafted immigration proposals that had a better chance of passing.
“I certainly wouldn’t sign the more moderate” of the two bills, he said. “I need a bill that gives this country tremendous border security. I have to have that,” he added.
Shortly after the president’s comments, House Speaker Paul Ryan’s leadership team suspended their Friday plans to build support for the more moderate of the two draft bills, which would protect 1.8 million “Dreamers” from deportation and provide them a path to citizenship.
Dreamers is a term for a group of immigrants, mostly Hispanic, who were brought illegally over U.S. borders when they were children and have been living for years in limbo. While most have attended American schools, they have also lived under the threat of deportation.
But the White House said later that Trump did in fact back the proposal that would protect the Dreamers, as well as the other, more hardline one.
“The president fully supports both the (Representative Bob) Goodlatte bill and the House leadership bill,” White House spokesman Raj Shah said in a statement. “He would sign either the Goodlatte or the leadership bills.”
House leadership officials put together the more moderate bill. Goodlatte’s more conservative bill, seen as having lower prospects of passing the Republican-controlled House, would deny Dreamers the chance of future citizenship.
Shah said that, in the interview, Trump had been voicing opposition not to either of those bills but to a “discharge petition,” a rarely used procedural maneuver House Republicans had threatened to employ that would have forced debate on four immigration bills, including a popular bipartisan one that would have a good chance of passing the House but is opposed by Trump, Ryan and House conservatives.
Attempts to achieve Republican consensus on passing legislation to address the status of Dreamers were already facing difficulties before Friday.
“Until we know exactly where he’s (Trump) at and his concerns have been satisfied, I think things will be on hold,” said veteran Republican Representative Tom Cole.
Later on Friday, Trump tweeted: “Any Immigration Bill MUST HAVE full funding for the Wall, end Catch & Release, Visa Lottery and Chain, and go to Merit Based Immigration. Go for it! WIN!”
Both the Republican bills under discussion, which have been blasted by Democrats and immigration advocacy groups as being too harsh, would fund the wall that Trump wants to build on the southwest border with Mexico. Both would reduce legal migration, in part by denying visas for some relatives of U.S. residents and citizens who are living abroad, sometimes referred to as “chain migration.”
Republican Representative Kevin McCarthy, the House majority leader, issued a schedule for next week that included “possible consideration of legislation related to border security and immigration.”
Last September, Trump announced that he was ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program created by President Barack Obama in June 2012. Trump set a March 5, 2018, deadline for Congress to replace DACA.
The deadline was never met.
Hundreds of thousands of Dreamers have won temporary protections from deportation under DACA that is now under review in federal courts.
Since last September, Trump’s conflicting messages about Dreamers and immigration legislation has helped create a chaotic atmosphere both in Congress and for the Dreamers.
Now, with November’s congressional elections nearing, Republicans are scrambling to minimize a potential backlash among Hispanic voters.
(Reporting by Susan Cornwell, Richard Cowan; additional reporting by Jeff Mason and Justin Mitchell; editing by Rosalba O’Brien and Leslie Adler)