Texas Sen. John Cornyn is wearing two hats as Congress debates when to deal with people living in the country under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Behind closed doors, he’s negotiating with Democrats to deliver a solution this month to help the nation’s 800,000 DACA beneficiaries, including 120,000 in Texas and 7,700 in Tarrant County.
But in public speeches that echo the view of Senate GOP leadership, Cornyn, the Senate’s second-ranking Republican, says Congress could hold off until 2018 allowing immigration hard-liners to demand bigger changes to the system in exchange for a legislative DACA fix.
Cornyn told reporters Tuesday that Congress has “a couple of months in January and February to figure this out, if [Democrats are] willing to meet us halfway and negotiate in good faith.”
President Donald Trump said he plans to end the program in March, and asked Congress to come up with a solution before then.
Both Democrats and Republicans have called for a solution to give DACA recipients clarity about their future, and Cornyn is working with Democrats to get it done this year.
“I’m happy to have that negotiation today, or tomorrow, or Dec. 31, or January or February,” he said on a press call with Texas media Wednesday. “But we’re not going to get anywhere” if Democrats “turn down every offer out of hand.”
On Tuesday, Cornyn rolled out his party’s proposal for DACA. That bill, he said, offers a “compassionate” three-year transitional period for DACA recipients, paired with border security measures to lure fellow Republicans, whose votes he’s responsible for rounding up.
“Clearly a long-term and permanent solution would be better, in my view,” said Cornyn. The three-year transitional period has in the past won support from members of both parties.
Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., quickly rejected Cornyn’s plan a few hours after Cornyn described it on the Senate floor, calling it a “laundry list of unrelated immigration bills” designed to “delay and stop any serious bipartisan effort” to find a DACA solution by the end of the year.
Democratic leaders, under pressure from a base that’s made this a top issue, say they won’t leave Washington without a DACA fix in place this year.
On Tuesday, Democrats got support for a DACA fix from 34 House Republicans. Many represent large Latino populations, and urged their own leaders to find a DACA solution before they return to their districts later this month.
Included in that letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan was San Antonio Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, whose competitive House district is nearly 70 percent Latino. Hurd is one of 19 House Republicans seeking re-election next year in a district where Latinos make up more than 10 percent of the population.
In the Senate, the political landscape is very different.
Republicans’ 2018 Senate map runs largely through red territory, and leaders are eager to score legislative victories on pocketbook issues, such as overhauling the nation’s tax code, before the end of the year. DACA is less of a priority.
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, said his preference — and his party leadership’s preference — would be that the Senate would “deal with the spending issues now and save some of the things that we don’t have to do right now until early next year.”
Addressing DACA next year would also give party hard-liners more time to build support for stricter immigration measures. The end-of-year spending bill requires 60 votes in the Senate, and Republicans only hold 52 seats.
Cornyn, though pushing for a solution before year’s end, said Wednesday that he doesn’t want it tied to the spending bill. He criticized Democrats for holding the government hostage over DACA.
Durbin, along with Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., again urged Democrats on Tuesday night to demand passage of the DREAM Act, which contains a path to legal status for DACA recipients.
That moves comes after Republican negotiators warned earlier this week that a DACA fix isn’t happening without border security.
Cornyn’s proposal includes a border security package he designed to provide funding for some physical barrier along the Texas-Mexico border — allowing Republicans to make good on one of Trump’s top campaign promises without completely walling off Texas’ southern border.
Aides on both sides of the aisle say negotiations for a deal before the end of the year are closer than they appear.
Some aspects of Cornyn’s proposal, such as a crackdown on “sanctuary cities,” could give Republicans negotiating chips in a deal with Democrats whose base doesn’t want to see any border security in exchange for DACA at all.
But immigration watchers say they’ve been let down by Cornyn in the past, pointing to failed border security negotiations in Congress’ attempts to overhaul the immigration system.
Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice Education fund, an immigrants rights group, called Cornyn’s proposal a “con job” filled with “nativist poison pills.”
“Cornyn pretends he wants to help immigrants and to get immigration reform enacted” but “he makes sure that Democrats can never agree to his demands,” said Sharry. “He’s done this repeatedly for over a decade.”
Andrea Drusch: 202-383-6056, @AndreaDrusch