THURMONT, Md. — Emerging from closed-door meetings with Republican leaders, President Donald Trump on Saturday held out the prospect of a deal with Democrats on the fate of young immigrants brought to the country illegally as children but appeared to put a welfare system overhaul — once a top White House priority — on the back burner.
Trump spent much of Friday and Saturday morning hashing out his 2018 agenda with GOP House and Senate leaders, top White House aides and select Cabinet members at the presidential retreat at Camp David. He described the sessions as “incredible” and “perhaps transformative in certain ways.”
A long list of high-stakes topics were on the agenda, from national security and infrastructure to the budget and 2018 midterm election strategy. Though Democrats were not included in the discussions, the leaders — some dressed casually in jeans, khakis and sweaters — said they were optimistic that more Democrats would be working with Republicans.
“We hope that 2018’ll be a year of more bipartisan cooperation,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters, predicting a “significant number of Democrats” would be interested in supporting Trump’s agenda.
It’s a reflection of reality: Republicans hold a razor-thin majority in the Senate and will need Democrats’ support to push through most legislation. It’s unclear, however, the extent to which Trump is willing to work with Democrats to achieve that goal.
Trump, for instance, declared Saturday that he will not sign legislation protecting hundreds of thousands of young people who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children unless Congress agrees to fund his promised border wall as well as overhaul the legal immigration system. Trump last year ended the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which shielded more than 700,000 people from deportation and gave then the right to work legally in the country, and gave Congress until March to find a fix.
Trump said any deal must stop immigrants from being able to sponsor their extended family members and must end the diversity visa lottery, which draws immigrants from under-represented parts of a world . That’s in addition to funding for the southern border wall, a deeply unpopular idea among Democrats.
The administration on Friday unveiled a 10-year, $18 billion request for the wall that roiled the immigration talks and infuriated Democrats who’ve spent months in negotiations, increasing the prospect of a government shutdown.
But Trump appeared oblivious to the anger on Saturday. “We hope that we’re going to be able to work out an arrangement with the Democrats,” he said. “It’s something, certainly, that I’d like to see happen.”
Trump also appeared Saturday to back away from efforts to overhaul the welfare system, which just weeks ago had been identified as one of the White House’s top two legislative priorities, along with a massive infrastructure investment plan.
McConnell had argued that welfare reform was a no-go given Democratic opposition. And Trump appeared to have come around.
“It’s a subject that’s very dear to our heart,” Trump said. “We’ll try and do something in a bipartisan way. Otherwise, we’ll be holding it for a little bit later.”
Republicans are eager to build on the victory achieved late last year with the overhaul of the nation’s tax code. But before moving on to infrastructure and other items, Trump and his GOP allies first must navigate a tricky landscape of leftover legislation from last year that promises to test party unity in the coming weeks.
The need to work with Democrats on a spending package, for instance, is sure to whip up opposition from many conservatives to a hoped-for catchall spending bill slated for next month.
The Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains provides a woodsy respite from Washington. It’s a place where presidents and lawmakers can bond over meals, hikes and movie nights.
“There’s a feeling here that you don’t have in very many places. There was a bonding,” Trump said of the visit.
Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly, told reporters Saturday that lawmakers and top White House officials had enjoyed “a couple of glasses of wine together last night” and gathered with Trump to watch the new movie “The Greatest Showman,” starring Hugh Jackman. (He described it as “very, very entertaining.”)
Politics, too, were on the agenda, with talks about the midterm elections. Republicans are at risk of losing the majority they’ve held in the House since 2011, and could also lose seats in the Senate, though many more Democratic incumbents are up for re-election this year.
Trump said he’s planning an aggressive campaign schedule to stump for Republican candidates, but added that he’s done campaigning for insurgents challenging incumbent Republican members of Congress.
“I don’t see that happening,” he said, citing the stinging GOP loss last year in Alabama, where Democrats managed to win a seat in the Senate and Trump backed two losing candidates.
Associated Press writer Andrew Taylor in Washington contributed to this report.