Texas Republicans have more at stake than anyone as Washington’s border security deliberations drag on.
Eleven months from Election Day, they say the White House has paralyzed their ability to motivate their base.
Without bolstered border security, Texas GOP strategists fear their voters could stay home in 2018, potentially costing the party as many as four Republican-held congressional seats.
President Donald Trump alone has the authority to determine what his base will accept on immigration policy though, Texas’ Washington lawmakers say, particularly when it comes to his border wall.
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Trump only this week became more active in trying to broker a deal. He huddled with Senate Republicans at the White House Thursday to lay out his demands. A framework for a compromise is expected next week.
“I think a lot of Republicans are looking to the president to see, what are you going to insist upon? And that’s going to be a starting point,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who introduced his own border security plan nine months ago and attended the White House meeting Thursday.
In Texas, where Republicans far outnumber Democrats, GOP strategists say doing nothing on border security is one of the few things that could truly imperil its vulnerable office holders in 2018.
Energized Left aside, Republicans say they have more to fear from depressed GOP turnout in the races Democrats are targeting, which include Republican Reps. Will Hurd, John Culberson and Pete Sessions, as well as the seat currently held by retiring Rep. Lamar Smith, in 2018.
Hillary Clinton carried the districts represented by Hurd, Culberson and Sessions districts in 2016, and all three races have Democratic challengers raising serious money. Smith’s district is a tougher challenge, but Democrats are bullish about their recruits.
“Republicans voters, grassroots activists want border security first, it’s very important to them, they’re very clear about that,” said Texas Republican strategist Brendan Steinhauser, who has worked for Cornyn and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.
“I’m more concerned about the people who are either going to show up or not show up in 2018, the Republicans, because if they lose the base, they’re not going to win,” he said.
Among the legislative challenges Republicans face: Any eventual plan must garner enough Democratic support to make it through the Senate. Sixty votes will be needed to pass legislation, and Republicans control 51 seats.
Democrats have shown some willingness to negotiate on border security, when tied to a deal to protect recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. They’ve said they’ll reject proposals that seek major changes to legal immigration.
Immigration hardliners in both the House and Senate want their party’s plan to go much further, ending the current family-based migration system, and trading it out for a merit-based system.
“One of the risks we run into is we sort of start spiraling out of control back into comprehensive immigration reform, and then nothing gets done,” said Cornyn.
Cornyn’s proposal offers some room for Republicans to negotiate with Democrats. It provides $15 billion for some physical barriers along the border, while using technology to monitor places where a wall is less practical. A House committee approved a version of the senator’s bill last year.
Some Democrats on the House Homeland Security Committee pointed out at the time that they view the plan as tantamount to Trump’s border wall — which they’ve vowed to oppose. But the basic framework of Cornyn’s plan could offer Democrats their best shot at a DACA deal.
The bigger problem for Cornyn, who has also been a vocal proponent of protecting DACA recipients, is whether that plan could satisfy his own party.
Strategists say the key to winning that constituency comes from Trump, who has the ability to deem whether the plan makes good on his campaign promises.
“Trump has the power with the base right now to define what’s good enough and what isn’t,” said Steinhauser. “The voters trust him to deliver on border security. Whatever that means, they trust him.”
Before Christmas, Cornyn asked the White House for a list of the border security requirements it wants in exchange for a DACA solution. As of Thursday, Cornyn still hadn’t received a list to take back to his Senate colleagues.
He told reporters after the White House meeting that Trump was adamant about securing the border as part of a DACA plan, as well as making changes to family-based migration and ending the immigration visa lottery system.
“What we’re talking about is a restoration of the two great pillars of American immigration policy,” said Cornyn. “One is a belief that legal immigration is good, but that respect for the rule of law was equally important.”