U.S. senators expressed differing expectations on Tuesday for what Congress might produce on thorny immigration topics, one day after a government shutdown ended on a promise of Senate action to protect young immigrants and boost border security.
"Now, serious negotiations can resume," Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said. "We have a fresh start today. I challenge every one of us to make the most of it."
On Monday, McConnell said he intended for the Senate to consider legislation addressing the plight of undocumented immigrants brought to America as children and other issues by February 8, when U.S. government funding expires once again. The assurance convinced more than 30 Senate Democrats to join Republicans in voting to end a three-day partial federal shutdown.
"The Republican majority now has 16 days to work with us to write a bill that can get 60 votes [in the 100-member Senate] and prevent Dreamers [young immigrants] from being deported," Democratic Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York said. "The clock is ticking."
President Donald Trump already rejected an immigration proposal negotiated by three Republican and three Democratic senators that reportedly included a legislative fix for recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals [DACA], enhanced border security and reforms to legal immigration. A top Trump ally on Capitol Hill, Republican Sen. David Perdue of Georgia, dismissed the deal as a starting point for negotiations going forward.
"It [the bipartisan proposal] doesn't solve the problem. We've got to move past that to find a solution," Perdue told reporters.
The border wall
Schumer, meanwhile, retracted a tentative offer on border wall funding he reportedly made to the president in private talks at the White House last week. Trump has repeatedly pledged to build a wall spanning the U.S.-Mexico border but backed away from promises that Mexico would pay for it.
Democrats opposed the wall but expressed willingness to back limited funding for physical barrier construction in order to reach a deal on DACA recipients. Given the president's rejection of that deal, Democrats said negotiations must start from scratch on all items, including the border wall.
"We're going to have to start on a new basis, and the wall is off the table," Schumer said.
Trump wrote on Twitter late Tuesday that "if there is no wall, there is no DACA."
Hardening positions, new start
Despite a hardening of bargaining positions by both Republicans and Democrats, many senators said they were heartened by discussions by some two-dozen members of both parties laying the groundwork for Monday's end of the government shutdown.
"Every now and then, we vote our hopes over our fears, and yesterday, that's what we did," Democratic Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware said.
"I think that eventually we're going to have to get together [reach an agreement]," Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley said. "We're all trying to find a way to provide for the humanitarian needs of the DACA kids."
"The Senate had been a partisan dead zone," Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island told VOA. "The fact that we ended up coming to a bipartisan solution is more than just an act of faith. I hope it's something of a new morning for senators to treat each other with respect and end the appalling partisanship."
Trump weighed in on Twitter, saying, "Nobody knows for sure that the Republicans & Democrats will be able to reach a deal on DACA by February 8, but everyone will be trying."
To that end, one powerful Republican had a suggestion for the White House: End widespread confusion on Capitol Hill about what the president will and won't accept in an immigration deal.
"My hope is that the president will release some further details on what it is he's expecting to see," Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas told reporters.
Lawmakers told VOA they are well-aware that a continued impasse on immigration could spark another government shutdown next month.
Asked if he expected a deal that could pass both houses of Congress and be signed into law, Hawaii Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz said, "It's too early to tell."