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Immigration negotiations: Lots of talk, little progress

There are several groups in Congress who have been meeting regularly to try to reach a breakthrough on stalled immigration talks. But that doesn't mean they're making much progress.

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Tal Kopan (CNN)
WASHINGTON (CNN) — There are several groups in Congress who have been meeting regularly to try to reach a breakthrough on stalled immigration talks. But that doesn't mean they're making much progress.

Lawmakers are quick to bemoan the lack of forward motion on a fix for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, a program that protected young undocumented immigrants who came to the US as children that President Donald Trump is ending.

The lack of progress stands in contrast to what Trump called in his State of the Union address Tuesday a "bipartisan approach," despite no Democrats supporting his framework.

"We presented Congress with a detailed proposal that should be supported by both parties as a fair compromise, one where nobody gets everything they want, but where our country gets the critical reforms it needs and must have," he said, even as his proposal was dismissed as dead on arrival by Democrats whose votes will ultimately be needed to pass any compromise.

Despite months of negotiations on how to preserve DACA and enact other measures like border security and White House-requested immigration overhauls, Congress still remains far from a clear path forward even as a deadline for government spending approaches.

"I wouldn't say we're making progress," said House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of the so-called "No. 2s" group, regular meetings of the seconds in command in both parties in both the House and Senate that have been coordinating with key administration officials.

"I would say we're continuing, however, to try to winnow down what the discussion is about. We haven't done it yet," Hoyer said.

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn similarly left a meeting last week of the group and characterized it as "wheel spinning." Democrats have long complained their perception is the group mainly exists to slow down negotiations.

The circular talks, which sources in the room describe as mostly reiterations of positions that in most cases neither side is willing to cede, are indicative of a broader stalemate leading up to February 8 -- when another short-term government funding bill is likely. After that, lawmakers await Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's promise to hold an open floor debate on immigration.

Likewise a group of roughly 20 bipartisan senators that formed out of the government shutdown at the last funding deadline has been meeting essentially daily to find common ground on the issue. But lawmakers in that group have similarly described a process of defining the issues, and have said their group's work is mostly to generate ideas that will then be funneled to Cornyn and Democratic Whip Dick Durbin for further negotiation.

"We want to be deferential," one of the group's organizers, Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins, said after a meeting Monday. "We hope we might be able to be helpful to them by going through a series of concepts," she added, saying the group had discussed various proposals out there.

Many of the lawmakers in the group have little prior specialty in immigration policy. North Dakota Democrat Sen. Heidi Heitkamp said that Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Lankford has been working to brief the group on what the Department of Homeland Security wants out of negotiations, and the group does include one of the authors of the 2013 "Gang of Eight" immigration reform bill, Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio.

"I think that there's such a discussion right now between process, how do you start, and then definitional, and I think the great work we're doing in there is look, let's get our facts in order, let's get a unified sense of understanding," Heitkamp said after one of the meetings of the group.

The groups' efforts have attempted to find a path forward even after Trump rejected a bipartisan compromise negotiated by Durbin and a handful of other senators over months, declined a DACA for border wall offer from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, and after the White House put out an aggressive framework that included a generous path to citizenship for the young undocumented immigrants but included a number of hardline requests that Democrats have said are impossible to swallow.

Some in the bipartisan group are already talking about narrowing the debate to just two issues -- DACA and physical border security -- even as others in the group reject that approach. Republicans like Cornyn and Lankford have said the White House's "four pillars," which include cuts to family migration and the diversity visa lottery and define border security broadly to include deportation authorities and other measures, have to be the starting point and can't be narrowed down.

"If we can't get a deal that includes that we may have to pair it down to two pillars and just do border and DACA as plan B," Rubio told CNN's Suzanne Malveaux on Wednesday. "But I know they're going to try plan A first, and you know I've supported that and I continue to support limiting (family-based migration) to nuclear family."

Meanwhile, the bipartisan group on the House side of the Capitol, the Problem Solvers Caucus, has proposed a compromise that hews very closely to the already-rejected proposal from Durbin, though the Senate has moved on from it. That group's co-chairman, Rep. Josh Gottheimer, has been in touch with Collins and her Democratic co-organizer Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, about possibly bringing the two groups together to meet, the New Jersey Democrat told CNN.

All of the talk is setting the stage for a potentially messy floor debate in the Senate. Though McConnell has pledged to call something to the floor for an open debate process if no deal otherwise is reached by February 8, he has not made any statements about what he would call as a starting point. And with an open amendment process, the debate could get messy and any bill could be brought down by a poison pill amendment intentionally designed to tank the process.

Still, lawmakers are continuing to meet.

"I don't know," Durbin said of whether the plan to funnel ideas through him and Cornyn will work. "We've never tried anything like this. But I'm hopeful, and so is he."

As for the No. 2s meeting he's a part of, Durbin added, "We do have some looming deadlines. I hope that moves us."

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