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Trump wants his immigration framework debated in Senate, in bid to overcome GOP divisions

President Donald Trump speaks to a House and Senate Republican conference at the Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, W. Va., Feb. 1, 2018. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), left, and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) flank him on the stage. (Tom Brenner/ The New York Times Copyright 2018 / New York Times)

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. - President Donald Trump asked Republican lawmakers gathered here at a secluded resort to embrace a controversial White House framework as they prepare for a coming congressional debate on immigration policy.

Trump's request, delivered in a luncheon speech at the yearly GOP policy retreat, comes as his own party remains beset with divisions on the issue, with a deadline looming for the end of a program that protects hundreds of thousands of young immigrants from deportation.

"We'll either have something that's fair and equitable and good and secure, or we're going to have nothing at all," he told his fellow Republicans.

He said that his offer potentially giving millions of undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship, anathema to many conservatives, in return for $25 billion in border wall funding and new curbs on legal immigration was meant to force Democrats into a political bind while showing Republicans were serious about a solution after years of inaction.

"We have to be willing to give a little in order for our country to gain a whole lot," he said at another point in the speech.

Divisions between House and Senate Republicans on immigration were evident earlier Thursday, with a top senator talking up the prospect of passing a narrower immigration bill than the White House has proposed, while a House GOP leader embraced all of the pillars of President Trump's plan.

The push to reach some sort of consensus on immigration was put on the front burner by Trump's decision to cancel the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which is shielding 690,000 young immigrants from deportation, by early March.

The issue is also tied up in a long-running standoff between Republicans and Democrats over federal spending levels, with Democrats threatening to block appropriations bills until immigration is addressed. The impasse sparked a brief federal shutdown last month.

Trump has set out a GOP framework for legislation protecting DACA recipients and other "dreamers" who were brought to the United States as children and remain here illegally. He touched on the immigration issue in a pair of morning tweets, blaming Democrats for "doing nothing about DACA."

In his speech Thursday, as he did during his State of the Union address Tuesday, Trump dismissed the "dreamer" lingo and appeared to urge lawmakers to avoid the term.

"Some people call it 'dreamers,' " he said. "It's not 'dreamers.' Don't fall into that trap."

At the GOP retreat, immigration was not officially on the agenda.

Member sessions are scheduled on infrastructure, workforce development and the "national mood," according to a copy of the official retreat agenda. But there is no separate session on immigration policy even as divides between conservatives and moderates, the House and the Senate, and various other factions have kept Republicans from cementing a deal.

But Trump's remarks and the pending deadline stand to keep attention on one of the most pressing and divisive matters confronting the GOP.

Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune, R-S.D., told reporters Thursday that a bill addressing DACA recipients and border security alone "may be the best we can hope for."

However, the White House framework goes much further. In exchange for offering a path to citizenship for 1.8 million young undocumented immigrants, the administration wants not only a $25 billion border wall "trust fund," but also new limitations of legal immigration - such as cuts to family immigration visas, which Republicans call "chain migration," and the elimination of the program that distributes visas to citizens of certain countries by lottery.

House Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., appearing alongside Thune behind a lectern, embraced the cornerstones of the Trump plan on Thursday.

"We largely agree on the DACA fix, the border security, ending chain migration and the visa lottery program reforms. I support those top four priorities," she said. "There's still a lot of work that needs to be done."

The discord highlights the challenge lawmakers face in trying to reach a deal on immigration. In the House, conservatives have demanded a hard-line bill, with some arguing that the White House plan is too lenient on a path to citizenship.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said last month that he would open debate on an immigration bill if a bipartisan accord on addressing DACA were not reached by Feb. 8.

According to prepared remarks distributed by the White House, Trump was set to request that "the framework we submitted be the bill that the Senate votes on." During the speech, however, an ad-libbing Trump skipped that line but regardless delivered a robust case for pursuing the framework.

"The Republican position on immigration is the center mainstream view of the American people, with some extra strength at the border and security at the border added in," he said.

Thune said it was not yet clear what the Senate debate would look like or what sort of legislation it might proceed from. The White House framework represented "a good faith offer" from Trump, he said, and could provide a base bill for debate but he said it would ultimately not fly with Democrats.

"My view is ultimately the fallback position that could pass the House and Senate and get signed would be DACA and border security," he said. "But the other stuff, if the stakes get raised and then other issues enter the conversation it gets more complicated, and it gets harder to pass in the House."

Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., the chairman of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus, said in an interview Thursday that conservatives are opposed to a "special pathway" to citizenship such as the one proposed in the Trump framework.

In the Senate, where GOP leaders will need Democratic votes to advance any immigration bill, there has been more appetite for a compromise bill. Still, Democrats and Republicans in the chamber remain far apart.

The top Senate Democratic negotiator, Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., has forcefully rejected the White House plan. He emerged from a meeting earlier this week with top House and Senate lawmakers and Trump administration officials with no progress to report in the talks.

Separately, a bipartisan group of senators has been meeting to gauge what kind of bill can attract broad support in the Senate. The flurry of meetings and working groups comes as lawmakers race to reach a deal on immigration sometime this month, with a looming March 5 deadline when many undocumented immigrations will lose protections, because of Trump ending DACA.

Meadows said if the Senate bill looked anything like what Thune sketched out, it would be a "nonstarter" in the House.

"If Republican leadership believes that's a win for this president or this administration or more importantly for the American people, they're wrong," he said.

Author information: Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012. Mike DeBonis covers Congress, with a focus on the House, for The Washington Post. Erica Werner contributed to this report.

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