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What Trump's Language Means For Immigration Overhaul


A vulgarity reportedly uttered this week by President Trump upended bipartisan immigration talks at the White House. Looming over all, of course, is the possibility of a government shutdown in less than a week. We're joined now by NPR's congressional correspondent Susan Davis.

Susan, thanks for joining us again.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Good morning.

SIMON: There was this group together with the president - Lindsey Graham, Dick Durbin. What happened? What was the deal that apparently couldn't be reached?

DAVIS: So earlier in the week, the White House and a group of lawmakers had agreed on what they believed should be the four pillars of a deal. And this group of six senators reached a compromise on those pillars, which included a path to citizenship for the so-called DREAMers, initial funds for both a border wall and more border security, changes to immigration policy involving your family and changes to what's known as the visa lottery system, which is a random system that lets about 50,000 people come into the country every year. The president rejected that agreement, was particularly angry about the visa lottery system and, in doing so, made - what I think is fair to say - very well-documented comments about certain African nations that sort of blew up the talks.

SIMON: What does the president want? Do we know?

DAVIS: That is the question. And it seems to be constantly changing. On Tuesday at the White House meeting, the president told lawmakers essentially, if you come up with a compromise, I'll sign what you send me. And so they did come up with a...

SIMON: Yeah, he said I'll sign it. I'll take the heat. Yeah.

DAVIS: Exactly. And so they thought they had done that. And he rejected it. The White House has never put a particularly fine policy detail on what they want. I think it's fair to say he wants a win. And on this issue, it's tough for him because he needs to be able to bring something back to his base on a key issue in his campaign but also come up with a deal that Democrats can vote for.

SIMON: It doesn't sound like a deal's in the offing.

DAVIS: It does not sound like a deal is in the offing. But I always caveat that tough deals like this often only come together when there's a sort of a pressure cooker dynamic on Capitol Hill. I'm not quite sure we're there yet. People like to talk about how much they want to see bipartisanship on these tough issues. But the truth is that often bipartisanship means, by nature, that both parties will have to agree to something that their most core supporters are not happy with. And that's tough.

SIMON: There is a shutdown looming, which might concentrate the mind.

DAVIS: That often has that effect (laughter) among lawmakers. A significant number of Democrats have been arguing that they should withhold their votes on keeping the government open, which is a Friday deadline, when they run out of money. They'll need at least a stopgap measure. And Democrats have made the case that they have leverage at this moment - that they should withhold their votes on government funding unless they can extract an agreement on immigration.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, on Friday, said he does not believe there will be a government shutdown. But I also think it's fair to say that comments like the president made have made it even more complicated because there's a significant number of Democrats who look at a White House with a president who has an approval rating hovering in the 30s on an issue that highly motivates Democratic voters. And they're saying, why are we compromising with a president who not only seems to not know what he wants but is making comments that, for a lot of voters, are just seen as racial or outright racist?

SIMON: Does either party see political damage in permitting a shutdown?

DAVIS: Nobody wants a shutdown. I do believe that's true, although I do think that on this issue - more than a lot of issues - that passions are really high because it's not just talking about fiscal policy or some other thing. We're talking about human lives. And human lives are at stake, and families are at stake. So it's not going to be an easy puzzle to solve.

SIMON: NPR's congressional correspondent Susan Davis, thanks so much.

DAVIS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.