WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST) - Prospects for a bipartisan agreement to protect young immigrants from deportation and prevent a government shutdown later this week faded on Sunday (Jan 14) as key lawmakers traded sharp accusations and US President Donald Trump said hopes for a deal were "probably dead".
Negotiators spent last week seeking a solution that would shield young immigrants brought illegally to the United States as children, including the roughly 800,000 who secured work permits under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program created under President Barack Obama.
But a tentative deal worked out on Thursday by a small bipartisan group of senators crumbled in an Oval Office meeting in which, according to multiple people involved, an angry Trump asked them why the United States should accept immigrants from "s***hole countries" such as Haiti, El Salvador and African nations over those from European countries such as Norway.
A pair of GOP senators - Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia - who attended the meeting and previously said they could not recall the use of the vulgar phrase denied outright on Sunday that Trump had ever said it.
That prompted Democrats to accuse them of impugning a fellow senator's credibility, a development that could further poison the bipartisan talks.
"Both sides now are destroying the setting in which anything meaningful can happen," Senator Rand Paul, R-Ky., said on Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press".
Trump offered a vague denial on Friday, and on Sunday, he declared the talks to be failing.
"DACA is probably dead because the Democrats don't really want it, they just want to talk and take desperately needed money away from our Military," he said on Twitter.
Democrats have tied the immigration talks to spending negotiations being held ahead of a Friday shutdown deadline. Republicans are seeking an increase in military spending; Democrats want a DACA deal and a matching increase in nondefense funding.
The sole Democratic participant in the Oval Office meeting, Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, told reporters on Friday that Trump had used the vulgar word "not just once but repeatedly" during the meeting.
A Republican attendee, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, issued a statement that did not specifically confirm the words used but backed up Durbin's account.
However, Perdue said in an interview Sunday on ABC's "This Week With George Stephanopoulos" that Trump did not use the word "s***hole."
"I'm telling you he did not use that word, George," Perdue said, accusing Durbin of making a "gross misrepresentation" of what took place in the meeting: "It's not the first time Senator Durbin has done it, and it is not productive to solving the problem we're having."
Cotton said much the same in an interview with CBS's "Face the Nation" on Sunday: "I didn't hear it, and I was sitting no further away from Donald Trump than Dick Durbin was."
Cotton and Perdue had previously issued a joint statement saying that they did "not recall the President saying these comments specifically."
Both senators on Sunday pointed to a statement Durbin had made in 2013 about comments allegedly made by an unnamed GOP leader during a private White House meeting that were later denied by an Obama administration spokesman. "Senator Durbin has a history of misrepresenting what happens in White House meetings," Cotton said.
Ben Marter, a spokesman for Durbin, tweeted a rebuke early Sunday: "Credibility is something that's built by being consistently honest over time," he said.
"Senator Durbin has it. Senator Perdue does not. Ask anyone who's dealt with both." Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., forcefully backed Durbin, who has authored a bill to grant young illegal immigrants a path to citizenship and is the leading Democratic negotiator on the DACA issue."To impugn (Durbin's) integrity is disgraceful," Schumer said.
"Whether you agree with him on the issues or not, he is one of the most honorable members of the Senate."
The accounts of the meeting, however, have not fallen neatly along party lines.
Besides Graham's endorsement of Durbin's account, Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said Sunday on "This Week" that he had spoken to participants in the meeting immediately afterward - before The Washington Post publicly reported Trump's use of the vulgar term."They said those words were used before those words went public," Flake said.
Another participant, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, said in an interview with "Fox News Sunday" that she did not "recall him using that exact phrase," but she acknowledged he "did use and will continue to use strong language."
Host Chris Wallace told Nielsen it "seems implausible" that she would not recall that type of comment. "I don't recall that specific phrase being used," she responded. "That's all I can say about that."
Nielsen said that Trump is simply advocating a merit-based immigration system, similar to those in Canada and Australia. "I take a little bit of offense to the suggestion that the president is racist," she said Sunday.
While Democrats have expressed openness to a deal that would combine legal status for "dreamers," as the group of young immigrants brought illegally as children are known, with funding for border security measures, Republicans have tried to broaden the talks. They have targeted the abolition of a special program allowing citizens of some countries to apply for visas distributed by lottery as well as rules allowing naturalized U.S. citizens to sponsor family members for legal status - a system Republican critics refer to as "chain migration."
The tentative deal unveiled on Thursday would give legal status and a pathway to citizenship for dreamers while also providing US$2.7 billion for border security - some of which could be used to construct the border wall Trump has proposed.
The visas now offered under the lottery system would be reallocated to other immigration programs, such as one offering temporary status to citizens of nations in crisis - like the ones Trump referenced in his Oval Office remarks.
Trump said in a second tweet Sunday that he wanted more aggressive measures in any deal: "I, as President, want people coming into our Country who are going to help us become strong and great again, people coming in through a system based on MERIT. No more Lotteries!"
Echoing dozens of Democrats, Lewis said he would not vote for any government spending measure until the dreamer issue is settled.
Republicans cannot pass a government funding bill without Democratic votes. There are 51 Senate Republicans in a chamber in which 60 votes are needed to pass major legislation, and GOP leaders are also facing problems in the House, where some Republican members have balked at the prospect of passing another stopgap that does not increase military funding.
"We must not give up or give in," Lewis said. "We must continue to press on and get a deal."
A federal judge in California last week halted Trump's decision to end the DACA program and ruled that participants in the program should retain their legal status.
US Citizenship and Immigration Services said late Saturday that it would resume accepting renewal requests from people who had already enrolled in the program.
But there is little indication the ruling has helped to defuse the standoff, multiple Democratic aides involved in the effort to secure a compromise said Saturday. On Sunday, the situation's urgency had not changed. Democrats are trained on securing a legislative solution to the crisis ahead of the Friday deadline.
Flake, who helped negotiate the deal that Trump rejected, said he was still hopeful it could provide the basis for a broad agreement."I think that when we get back into town, people will realize there's only one deal in town," he said. "There's only one bipartisan bill, and we need 60 votes, and that bill will be presented with even more Republicans and Democrats than we have right now."