“If they pass a straight-up Dream amnesty,” says Mark Krikorian, an anti-immigration activist, “they will go into the elections having failed to repeal Obamacare but having passed amnesty.” When you put it like that, it sounds crazy, doesn’t it? And indeed it would seem bizarre for Donald Trump’s sole legislative achievement to be the negation of his central campaign theme. But in recent days, the implausible has become suddenly plausible.
1. Trump doesn’t really care about restrictionism. The president has many prejudices but almost no actual policy commitments. He rode anti-immigrant sentiment to the presidency, but his use of the theme was largely instrumental. Trump has alternated his nativist lurches with professions of sympathy for the Dreamers. “I have a love for these people and hopefully now Congress will be able to help them and do it properly,” Trump said recently. “And I can tell you, speaking to members of Congress, they want to be able to do something and do it right. And really, we have no choice.”
2. He’s in a bipartisanship groove. The president cares more about positive feedback and good press than anything else. His bipartisan deal to lift the debt ceiling for three months might have been substantively contentless, but he liked the response from the media. As a creature of impulse, he will probably want to tap the bar for another pleasure hit.
3. The cult of personality protects him. Previous efforts to protect the Dreamers have all fallen prey to conservative revolts. But the Trump imprimatur has unique power to give Republicans political cover. A glimpse of the strange dynamic came into view when Trump cut his debt-ceiling agreement with Democrats over the objections of the GOP leadership, and enraged conservatives took out their anger on … Paul Ryan.
Trump catered to his base by tapping into primal ethno-nationalist resentment. Having proven his tribal loyalty, he is perfectly positioned, should he choose, to bring along his base. A large segment of the party-messaging apparatus seems prepared to follow along. “Nobody wants to kick a bunch of kids out of the country, right?” Rush Limbaugh said Tuesday. “I don’t care if they’re budding little Al Capones. People just don’t want to do it … There needs to be a price, and it would be a great thing, couple this, say, with building the wall. I mean, you do all-in on border enforcement.”
4. The bill will materialize. There is almost certainly a majority in both chambers for a Dreamer bill. The trick is getting the bill to the floor. When Ryan ran for the Speakership, in 2015, he promised he would not bring immigration legislation to the floor unless it commanded a majority of his own party.
What might do the trick, however, is attaching DACA — Deferred Action of Child Arrivals — to an unrelated bill. There will be at least two measures to increase the debt ceiling. Those bills, crucially, will rely heavily on Democratic votes, since a large portion of the Republican base refuses to vote to increase the debt ceiling. This essentially circumvents the informal requirement that the GOP only brings up bills that most Republicans support, opening the door for passing something mostly with Democratic votes.
“There’s no way,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas says of a DACA vote. “We will take that up. I’m confident. But there’s no way that it will stand alone.” But it’s not standing alone any more.
5. Ambiguity is their friend. The ability of both sides to claim a deal does different things is the classic lubricant of any political negotiation. In this case, the grounds for ambiguity are obvious. Trump has made the symbolism of the wall a political fetish, and Democrats oppose it on similar grounds. The way around this standoff is to tie DACA to border-security measures that Trump can call a “wall” and Democrats can call “not a wall.”
After all, Democrats have previously supported border-security measures like increased drone surveillance and added fencing. What is the conceptual distinction between a fence and a wall? Not much.
The safest bet, of course, is that nothing happens, because that is almost always the safest bet in modern Washington. But the window of possibility has opened quickly. All of a sudden, helping the Dreamers is not just a dream.