Sen. Durbin: DACA ‘epitaph could turn into an opportunity’

JUDY WOODRUFF: It is said necessity is the mother of invention. In Washington, D.C., this week, the need to find funding to help those hurt by Harvey seems to have forced some unlikely alliances.

Our John Yang reports.

JOHN YANG: Today, President Trump suggested his fiscal deal with congressional Democrats could be just the beginning.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I think that's a great thing for our country. And I think that's what the people of the United States want to see. They want to see some dialogue.

JOHN YANG: Earlier, there was another sign of bipartisan collaboration. Mr. Trump reassured DACA recipients that they have nothing to worry about as the program winds down. The inspiration for that? A phone conversation with House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi.

REP. NANCY PELOSI, D-Calif., House Minority Leader: When he called this morning, I said: Thanks for calling. This is what we need. The people really need a reassurance from you, Mr. President, that the six-month period is not a period of roundup.

And I was reporting to my colleagues. I said, this is what I asked the president to do. And, boom, boom, boom, the tweet appeared.

JOHN YANG: Republican leaders are trying to put the best face on the president's alliance with Democrats.

REP. PAUL RYAN, R-Wis., Speaker of the House: He was interested in making sure that this is a bipartisan moment while we respond to these hurricanes. And he made that clear, and I think that's what his motivation was.

JOHN YANG: But the leader of the conservative 155-member House Republican Study Committee wrote Ryan opposing the deal. And moderate Ben Sasse of Nebraska was one of 17 Republicans to vote against it in the Senate.

SEN. BEN SASSE, R-Neb.: This is an embarrassing moment for a Republican-controlled Congress and a Republican administration.

JOHN YANG: But, for now, the Republican president seems to be trying to get things done in Congress with Democratic votes.

For the PBS NewsHour, I'm John Yang.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I spoke a short while ago with Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin.

And I started by asking the Illinois Democrat how surprised he was by the deal President Trump struck with his party yesterday.

SEN. DICK DURBIN, D-Ill, Minority Whip: Well, I thought it was interesting, because what we proposed to the president was very basic.

Let's provide the disaster aid for Hurricane Harvey victims. Let's put that money on the table. I might add, there is money added for those who are going to suffer from Irma.

And, secondly, we said, let's not shut down the government. Let's make sure it is funded. And, third, let's extend the debt ceiling in this country, so there is no threat to the economy.

We offered a three-month package and said there will be no wasted time in debate. We can do it and do it tomorrow. The president said, I will take it.

I think it was the right decision.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you think Democrats are going to be able to work with the president on other big issues, like health care, like tax reform?

SEN. DICK DURBIN: Well, I hope so.

And I might add to that DACA and the DREAM Act. It was kind of a stunning decision this week announced by Attorney General Sessions and the president that they were going to end DACA. It broke my heart. I introduced the DREAM Act 16 years ago and still trying to make it the law of the land. Almost 800,000 young people depend on it to stay in the United States without fear of deportation.

And the president ended it on Tuesday. But I saw it not so much as an epitaph, as an opportunity, because we heard from the White House quickly, we want to do something. We want to respond to this with a law that we can back.

The president called Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi again this morning and repeated the same thing. I'm going to take him at his word. We have got an opportunity to work together on a bipartisan basis to do the right thing for these young people.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, I do want to ask you about that, but, very quickly, as you know, there are progressives in your party who are critical of leadership and saying they should have attached the DREAM Act, DACA, to this deal over spending, over the debt ceiling.

SEN. DICK DURBIN: Judy, it's simple math.

To pass anything in the United States Senate takes 60 votes. We have 48 Democrats. I need 12 Republicans to make the DREAM Act the law of the land. If we said that we were going to withhold relief for the Hurricane Harvey victims until the Republicans came around, imagine how that would have played out. That is not the way to get it done.

We have committed ourselves to passing the DREAM Act this year, putting it on must-pass legislation in the Senate, so the House takes it up. And we're getting good signals from the White House in terms of being open to this approach. So I know they're as anxious as I am, but let's do it the right way and do it effectively.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you think the outlines of a compromise are going to be? You have said you are open to some sort of security measures. I believe you have said that should not include a border wall. What exactly do you see as the components of a deal?

SEN. DICK DURBIN: When we closed the deal on comprehensive immigration reform, it passed the Senate with 68 votes, bipartisan roll call.

Never it was taken up the by Republican House. But we passed it. And the last thing to close the deal was border security. We voted for more money than I thought was necessary, but enough to satisfy Republicans to join us.

Now, we have told them, if they want to talk about border security again, we're not going to protect the dreamers by having more deportations of their parents. That's unacceptable. We're not going to buy a 2,200-mile wall. And we are going to be very sensitive to the sanctuary city issue in Chicago and other places.

Beyond that, if they want to put more technology and resources on the border that doesn't assault what I have just described, I think there is going to be a real opening for discussion.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about the proposal by those like Senator Tom Cotton and others who are saying, well, it's OK to do something to protect the dreamers, but what we have got to do is stop immigration at spouses and at unmarried children, in other words, that it has just become too open-ended?

SEN. DICK DURBIN: Well, I can tell you that Tom Cotton goes after an aspect of immigration reform which we debated at length in our bipartisan approach. And it's controversial.

And there are many members of the Senate who voted for the comprehensive bill on the Republican side who don't embrace Tom's approach to this. So, you know, if we are going to do comprehensive immigration reform, I'm open to that. And let's get into the debate.

But for the time being, let's protect DACA and the dreamers. Let's make that the law of the land and save all the other myriad issues in immigration for a later discussion.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Could the president's move this week to rescind what President Obama did ultimately turn out to be better for the dreamers, because, if you end up with a law that protects them, isn't that better than having had a presidential memorandum?

SEN. DICK DURBIN: It absolutely is.

And when I asked President Obama, along with my colleagues, to create by executive order some protection for dreamers, it was simply because we couldn't pass a law at that time. We didn't have the votes to do it in the United States Senate. So now, if we can pass a law, a permanent law that protects the dreamers, it is all the better.

This — what looked, as I said, like an epitaph could turn into an opportunity.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator, another thing I want to quickly ask you about, as you know, one of your Democratic colleagues, Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, flew on Air Force One with President Trump yesterday when he was visiting her home state.

Is that something that you and other Democratic senators should do? Is that an appropriate thing to do? She even stood on stage with President Trump.

SEN. DICK DURBIN: Well, if I heard it correctly, he invited her on stage, and then described her as a good woman.

I can't tell you how much joking Heidi Heitkamp has taken today from her Democratic colleagues about that little trip.

But is it wrong for a Democrat to travel with the president or go somewhere with the president? Of course not. And the same would have been true under President Obama. Republicans were invited to travel with him. That's not inappropriate at all.

And if we can find some common ground, if she can help us find some common ground, more power to her.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And final question. Senator, what do you see happening on tax reform, which the president says is his number one priority next month?

SEN. DICK DURBIN: Well, I hope we can get some basic agreements.

First, if this is about another tax break for the wealthiest people in America, it's a nonstarter with Democrats.

Secondly, at the end of the day, we want to make sure that it's a good accounting, that we use CBO scoring, that we don't make up some rules about the impact of tax cuts, for example, on the deficit.

And, finally, my big talking about, this president spent so much time talking about working families falling behind, that their wages just weren't keeping up, that they weren't being rewarded for their productivity.

I agree. Let's make the tax code go to work for working families in America. That, to me, would be a real plus for economic growth.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just quickly, do you see any prospects for passing health care reform?

SEN. DICK DURBIN: Well, I think we can.

We just had meetings in the last few days with Lamar Alexander, Patty Murray, a Republican, Democrat. We had insurance commissioners and governors from many states. We had over 50 senators from both parties show up.

There is a real appetite to do something, instead of just making speeches. Wouldn't it be great for America if we, on a bipartisan approach, made our health care system stronger, health care more affordable, and didn't give up on the quality of our health insurance policies? That should be our goal.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Devil's in the details.

Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, thank you very much.

SEN. DICK DURBIN: Thanks, Judy.

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