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President Trump is open to short-term DACA deal, White House tells GOP leaders

President Donald Trump views border wall prototypes in the border neighborhood of Otay Mesa near San Diego, March 13, 2018. The eight stolid slabs in the neighborhood were chosen from numerous proposals submitted to the Department of Homeland Security in 2017. (Doug Mills/The New York Times/Copyright 2018/New York Times)

White House officials have told key Republican leaders on Capitol Hill that President Donald Trump is open to cutting a deal in an upcoming spending bill to protect young immigrants from deportation in exchange for border wall funding, according to four GOP officials briefed on the talks.

The offer could represent a dramatic shift for Trump. In January he insisted on a much broader package of immigration restrictions in exchange for any protections for immigrants commonly referred to as "dreamers" - foreign-born people who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children or who overstayed their visas as children. Some of them have been protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that Trump canceled in September.

Now, with the DACA cancellation tied up in the courts and no clear path forward for stand-alone immigration legislation, the officials, who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the negotiations, said Trump is warming to a simpler deal that would allow his administration to quickly start work on a Mexican border wall - a centerpiece of his 2016 presidential campaign.

One idea under consideration is a three-year extension of the DACA program in exchange for three years of wall funding, according to a GOP official. This official said talks were fluid.

A White House spokesperson declined to comment. Talks are being led by senior policy adviser Stephen Miller and legislative affairs head Marc Short, according to the people familiar with the conversations.

Any deal could come together quickly: Congress must pass a new spending bill before a March 23 deadline, and congressional negotiators are aiming to release draft legislation as soon as this week.

On Tuesday, Trump toured prototypes for the border wall that have been erected in San Diego and, in remarks there, repeated bold and unproven claims about the plan's benefits.

"It will save thousands and thousands of lives, save taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars by reducing crime, drug flow, welfare fraud, and burdens on schools and hospitals," he said. "The wall will save hundreds of billions of dollars - many, many times what it's going to cost."

Trump's willingness to deal comes as congressional leaders had all but given up on acting to protect dreamers before November's midterm elections. Democrats, who forced a three-day January government shutdown over the issue, have moved on to other fights, while Republicans shown little urgency to find a solution - especially since the Supreme Court rejected the Trump administration's bid to accelerate the pending judicial review of DACA's cancellation.

But Trump's desire to build the border wall could get talks moving again.

The immigration framework that Trump issued in January called for $25 billion in wall funding, alongside changes to immigration law that would curtail two key pathways for legal immigrants by ending the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, which distributes 50,000 visas a year through a lottery system, and by scaling back family-based immigration rules. In exchange, Trump proposed offering legal status and an eventual pathway to citizenship for up to 1.8 million "dreamers," going well beyond those protected under DACA.

But the White House proposal never gained bipartisan momentum - with Democrats rejecting the legal immigration cutbacks even as they conceded funding for the border wall - and it won only 39 votes in a Feb. 15 Senate test vote. A bill that preserved the $25 billion in wall funding but set aside most of the legal immigration cutbacks won 54 votes, though still short of the 60 necessary for passage.

The outlines of the deal Trump is now willing to explore are much narrower, said the officials familiar with the offer: a two- or three-year extension of the DACA program, which now protects about 690,000 immigrants, coupled with an unspecified amount of border wall funding - hewing to a framework that some GOP moderates explored in the aftermath of February's failed Senate votes.

A three-year DACA extension could essentially remove immigration from the congressional agenda until after the 2020 presidential election by removing the threat of deportation for the young immigrants covered by the program.

AshLee Strong, a spokesperson for House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., declined to address the discussions. "We aren't negotiating the [spending bill] through the press," she said.

A spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday morning.

Ryan on Wednesday told reporters that he would not discuss specific aspects of the spending bill but said, "Our goal is to get this done as fast as possible. Stay tuned."

The cutbacks on legal immigration emerged as key elements for some Republicans on Capitol Hill, where Trump allies such as Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and members of the House Freedom Caucus called the restrictions a key element in moving toward a "merit-based" immigration system - a term Trump has frequently repeated in his tweets and at public appearances.

It is unclear whether House conservatives would back a narrower deal. But it might not matter: Congressional leaders do not expect many conservative hard-liners to vote for any spending bill, let alone one that would extend protections for "dreamers" without major new immigration restrictions.

Author information: Mike DeBonis covers Congress, with a focus on the House, for The Washington Post. Josh Dawsey is a White House reporter for The Washington Post. He joined the paper in 2017.