(CNN) — Senate and House leaders met Monday to discuss steps forward on immigration in the first gathering they have had since President Donald Trump unveiled his immigration framework last week.
But after the meeting, it remained unclear how either side could reach agreement with the other, even after weeks of negotiations.
“I don’t think they’re any closer to anything than they were from the White House meeting weeks ago,” said one Democratic source privy to the conversation in the room.
The meeting, which stretched just over 40 minutes, featured “candid” discussion, according to House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Maryland, and included White House officials such as chief of staff John Kelly and Director of Legislative Affairs Marc Short as well as Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.
“I think we were candid as to where each one of us was coming from,” Hoyer said after leaving the meeting. “I don’t think anybody was not straightforward, which was useful.”
Sen. Dick Durbin told CNN the meeting was “cordial” with “back and forth” between the lawmakers and Kelly and Nielsen. But he said he still thinks the administration is including too much in its request, especially under the name “border security.”
“We’re not cursing one another or anything like that at all, but we haven’t made a lot of progress,” the Illinois Democrat said. “Maybe tomorrow will be different.”
According to one GOP aide, Kelly did not stress at any point that he was there to deliver a specific or pointed message from the President in the meeting. According to the Democratic source, there was a lot of discussion of the “four pillars” the White House wants in a deal — a fix for the expiring Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, border security, cuts to family migration and ending the diversity lottery — but the administration still can’t answer if those are non-negotiable, even when Democrats say the latter two are not doable.
According to Congressional Hispanic Caucus Whip Pete Aguilar, a California Democrat who attended the meeting with Hoyer, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy led the meeting held in his office and there was “dialogue” after McCarthy walked through the White House proposal.
Trump is expected to discuss his immigration proposal, including strong limits to legal immigration, at his first State of the Union address Tuesday.
“This has not been productive,” Durbin said of the group. “We’ve had three or four meetings of principals, five or six meetings of staff, and we don’t have much to show for it. But we do have some looming deadlines. I hope that moves us.”
He added that he hoped a Tuesday session will offer a “better chance” at “specifics.”
“Right now we’re waiting to see who will step up and engage,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn after the meeting. “Right now we’re not seeing much engagement from the leadership on the President’s proposal. The clock’s ticking.”
“I think there is a lot of wheel spinning,” Cornyn added. “Talking about having a bunch of staff meetings at this point doesn’t strike me as particularly designed to achieve some consensus by February 8.”
Lawmakers have a handful of days left to find consensus on immigration if they are to meet a February 8 deadline for a government funding measure, but fierce disagreements over how to structure the future of legal immigration still threaten to derail negotiations.
The President’s proposal includes a path to citizenship for 1.8 million individuals eligible for DACA, but also makes drastic changes to so-called chain migration or family reunification programs, something Democrats have said they won’t accept, and includes undetailed closes to “legal loopholes,” as the White House puts it, which could mean a vast expansion of federal enforcement and deportation authority.
Leaving the meeting, Cornyn told reporters that the President’s plan was the de facto starting point.
“I know the Democrats would like to take the DACA piece and forget the rest, but we’re not going to do that,” the Texas Republican said.
Leaving a second meeting she held just after the first with House conservatives who have pushed for a more aggressive conservative proposal, Nielsen wouldn’t say whether the President’s framework was a final offer.
“It’s the President’s offer. We’re working on it from there,” she told CNN.
Nielsen then went into a meeting with the House Republican whip team, where she was introduced by House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Mike McCaul, the Texas Republican told CNN.
In the meeting, House Republicans expressed concerns among the caucus about being able to pass the White House proposal.
“I think the hard part for our guys is going to be this full pathway to citizenship and trying to deal with that issue,” McCaul said. “Obviously we discussed everything (with Nielsen) and it came up at the whip meeting. I think it’s something people want to know — some of our guys view that as amnesty.”
McCarthy said the Kelly meeting was more productive than others in the past, adding that the group would meet again Tuesday.
The obstacles that await the group are only growing, however. Tuesday night is the State of the Union address, which is expected to take up most of the political energy in Washington, and then lawmakers will leave DC for their respective Democratic and Republican retreats. The question now is whether lawmakers will tackle the full cadre of items Trump wants them to or abandon his plan for a simpler proposal that protects DACA recipients in exchange for bolstered border funding.
McCarthy shot down the idea that Congress would simply extend DACA for a year rather than tackle family reunification and the diversity lottery, which are considered far thornier issues, a possibility Cornyn himself has suggested to reporters.
The California Republican shook his head no.
“We got to finish this once and for all,” he said.