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Congress should swap a DACA fix for something Republicans actually care about

More tax cuts, anyone?

Activists In New York Protest Government Shutdown Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The legislative processes needed to help young immigrations who came to the United States as children have become increasingly frustrating. And a Monday morning tweet from President Trump offered a reminder of that frustration.

This idea of swapping DACA protections for some kind of border security initiative that Trump could characterize as a “wall” (yes, the wall that Mexico was supposed to pay for) keeps coming up — and the Trump administration itself keeps killing the deal.

It appears that Trump, personally, is sympathetic to this approach. But the people actually running immigration policy in the White House are not, and thus the deadlock continues.

The way out of the bind is to recognize that Congress is allowed to make legislative compromises that cut across different issues. A concession to Democrats on immigration policy doesn’t need to be offset by concessions to Republicans on immigration policy — it can be offset by concessions on any topic under the sun.

And in the case of DACA, a cross-cutting compromise is by far the most promising route to a deal. Rather than giving the GOP’s most extreme immigration hardliners something they want, Democrats would have to give Republicans who don’t particularly care about immigration something they do care about — a tax cut, a deregulation, a missile shield, whatever.

The false promise of an immigration deal

The wall-for-DACA deal is seductive because it has the formal structure of a good deal.

Trump has said, over and over again for a period of years, that building some kind of wall on the US-Mexico border is extremely important. And while Democrats think this is stupid and moderately offensive, they don’t in a practical sense see the idea of further hardening the border as a huge problem — especially since Trump has already conceded that various features of the landscape (Big Bend National Park, for example) would warrant wall exceptions.

The reason this keeps not working, however, is that it’s not just Democrats who think the wall is stupid — Republicans also think it’s stupid, including Congress’s main immigration hardliners and their allies inside the White House. What they want is real, meaningful concessions on immigration policy aimed at altering the demographic trajectory of the United States.

These demands are not particularly popular among congressional Republicans, and deporting DREAMers is unpopular with the public at large. For GOP immigration doves, the problem at this point is everyone who cares passionately about immigration from a pro-immigrant perspective has sorted into the Democratic Party, and every rank-and-file Republican who cares a lot about immigration is a restrictionist.

Consequently, GOP leaders who themselves don't care very much about immigration — with Speaker Paul Ryan, who’s been on just about every conceivable side of the immigration issue over the years, taking the lead — defer to the most extreme restrictionists.

And that makes a deal impossible. The key to getting one done would be to strike a deal about something else.

Republicans love tax cuts

The most natural terrain for any kind of issue-crossing deal would be taxes.

Republicans, you see, care a lot about tax cuts. And even though they just passed a big tax cut bill last year, they didn’t cut taxes by nearly as much as they want to in their heart of hearts. That’s because in order to pass a bill without Democratic Party support, they needed a bill that would “score” as deficit neutral in the long term and not increase the deficit by more than $1.5 trillion over the next 10 years. They met those goals in a practical sense by engaging in a lot of phase-in/phaseout shenanigans and by moderately restraining their corporate tax cutting by settling for a 21 percent rate rather than a 20 percent rate.

A promising avenue for a deal would be to explore giving the GOP the 20 percent rate that plutocrats crave — along with, perhaps, making the full expensing provision permanent — in exchange for creating a path to citizenship for the 1.5 million DREAMers.

Anti-immigration hardliners wouldn’t like this deal, obviously, and would try to scuttle it. But they would face meaningful pushback from forces who — unlike immigrants — have actual power in the Republican coalition. Trump would still want his wall money, of course, and in exchange, Democrats could demand money for something else, like community health centers.

Liberals would be mad about an additional regressive tax cut, but liberals are already committed to rolling back the Trump tax cuts with a reconciliation bill if they ever get the chance. Cutting the rate lower wouldn’t really make that any harder.

Deficits hawks would, obviously, be outraged by a bill that cut taxes and raised spending — but honestly, who cares about deficit hawks?

Real deals focus on core needs

A deal along these lines would be a kind of unprincipled mess rather than a high-minded resolution of the immigration issue.

But such is the nature of legislative dealmaking. It is extraordinarily difficult to reconcile opposing points of view on issues that matter to people. Successful bargains are generally struck by exploiting the fact that different things matter to different people. The DREAMers simply don’t matter to most Republicans, who are happy to treat the lives and welfare of hundreds of thousands of people as a cynical bargaining chip. Right now, though, that chip is being wielded by Republicans who care passionately about immigration — creating an irrepressible conflict with a Democratic base that desperately wants to see the party fighting for immigrants’ interests.

A more creative deal may prove impossible — one should never bet against the unwieldy American legislative system’s ability to generate gridlock — but it has a more promising path forward. Most Republican members care a lot more about taxes than immigration, and few Democrats really have a passionate disagreement about a 21 percent versus a 20 percent corporate tax rate. DREAMer protections, meanwhile, poll very well, and this not really the hill Republicans want to die on, even as Senate Democrats are aware that they have a number of incumbent members facing reelection in lily-white red states who also don’t want to die on DREAMer hill.

Trying to solve the entrenched conflict over immigration between now and March 5 is just way too hard. A smarter approach would be to take the easy way out.