President Donald Trump told a group of U.S. senators Thursday that he is open to the Gang of Eight’s immigration bill, according to Sen. Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) -- a position which, if true, could anger many of the conservatives and Trump supporters who backed him for his hardline stance on immigration issues.
Manchin told print reporters about Mr. Trump’s willingness to consider the proposal at his Senate office after having lunch with Mr. Trump at the White House, CBS News has confirmed. Manchin was part of a bipartisan group of senators who dined with Mr. Trump to discuss the confirmation process for Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch.
Also included in the group of senators was Senator Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. A spokesman for the Tennessee senator declined to elaborate on the president’s position but said that Alexander during the lunch more broadly suggested that “it is important to fix our immigration system and that the president is in a unique position to help do that.”
The Gang of Eight, a term used to refer to a group of four Democrats and four Republicans who put together the comprehensive immigration reform bill introduced in 2013: Sens. Michael Bennet (D-Colorado), Dick Durbin (D-Illinois), Jeff Flake (R-Arizona), Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), John McCain (R-Arizona), Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey), Marco Rubio (R-Florida) and Chuck Schumer (D-New York).
That immigration legislation, which passed in the Senate but never succeeded in the House, included provisions for increasing border security -- but also would have created a pathway to legal status, and eventually citizenship, for undocumented immigrants.
That pathway to citizenship is roundly opposed by many conservatives -- enough so that involvement in the bill helped sink Rubio’s 2016 campaign. In fact, Mr. Trump went after Rubio along these lines during the Republican primary, even referring to him as “Marco ‘Amnesty’ Rubio.” Back in fall 2015, Mr. Trump tweeted about the Gang of Eight, saying its members are “very weak on stopping illegal immigration.”
Later Thursday, Democratic Whip Sen. Dick Durbin said in a statement that he was “encouraged” to hear the president “is interested in comprehensive immigration reform” and he called on Republican leadership and the president to take “another look at this critical legislation.”
However, White House press secretary Sean Spicer told a group of reporters that Mr. Trump opposes the Gang of Eight bill, according to The Hill, and had called the Gang of Eight bill “amnesty” during the meeting with the senators. Spicer also said that the president told the senators that if they wanted to work on something, he’d be willing to listen.
Were Mr. Trump to support the 2013 immigration bill, it would be a major shift in his position on immigration: he made his hardline stance on the issue a centerpiece of his campaign, calling for a mass deportation of millions of undocumented immigrants and proposing a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Since winning the election in November, Mr. Trump’s statements on immigration have shifted slightly: he has said he will prioritize deporting undocumented immigrants who have been convicted of crimes, and that the administration will later decide how to proceed with other undocumented immigrants. Still, he has signaled his intent to follow through on one major campaign promise: shortly after taking office, Mr. Trump signed an executive order authorizing the start of construction on the border wall.
CBS News’ John Nolen and Alan He contributed to this story