WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump is facing an unusual reaction from congressional Republicans as he visits the Capitol Tuesday night to talk to them about immigration: They're pushing back on him — and hard — because they're worried about the effect of his policies on their electoral prospects in November.
Trump's making the trip to discuss House immigration legislation that would partially fund a wall at the Mexican border, crack down on both illegal and legal immigration, provide protection from deportation for people who came to the country illegally as children and perhaps end his "zero tolerance" policy that has separated undocumented children from their parents.
But it's the latter issue — one that could be changed by Trump himself or by legislative action — that has roiled the debate over his priorities, turned House Republicans into critics of his policy and pushed Senate Republican leaders into open rebellion.
Rather than solving the separation issue as part of a catch-all immigration bill — which would have difficulty garnering 60 Senate votes — Senate leaders want to do it in a narrower standalone measure.
"Hopefully we'll get this problem addressed right away," Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, said. "My hope is this is not going to be something that we're going to do over a matter of weeks or months but something we could do in a matter of days, hopefully this week."
That's a direct challenge to Trump and White House aides, for whom the crisis over family separation is an opportunity to score victories on the rest of his immigration plan. But it's also a reality that reflects the nervousness congressional Republicans feel over the political heat they're taking on the zero-tolerance policy.
Nearly three dozen House Republicans, including several of the most politically vulnerable lawmakers in the country, have said they oppose the separation policy.
The chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, the arm of the party responsible for keeping Republican incumbents in office, said he couldn't abide it.
"As a father, I know firsthand that there is nothing more important than family, and I understand why kids need to be with their parents," Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Ohio, said. "That's why I have publicly come out against separating children from their parents at the border."
And Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., who sits in one of the nation's toughest districts, said Monday that he supports a measure by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
The crux is that Trump's policy designs are running smack into the electoral needs of congressional Republicans, who are trying to maintain their majorities in the Senate and the house, said Michael Caputo, who advised Trump during the 2016 campaign and remains a staunch ally of the president.
"For Donald Trump, this isn't a popularity contest. He wants to get some things done that aren't particularly popular," Caputo said. "And for congressmen up for re-election in 2018 it's absolutely a popularity contest. The tension between those two perspectives is on display."
It doesn't take a political scientist to read the current public mood on the topic: A Quinnipiac poll released Monday showed that two-thirds of Americans oppose the separation policy. While 55 percent of Republicans support it, that's a much smaller figure than the share of Republicans who generally approve of the job Trump is doing — which is at 90 percent in the latest Gallup poll.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Tuesday that Republicans won't face blowback from voters over the zero-tolerance policy because it won't be an issue in November.
"It's not going to tar anybody," he said. "We're going to fix the problem. The president says that we need to act. The Democrats say we need to act. And we say we need to act. And when that happens, we act."
Trump has sought to blame Democrats for the impasse over border policy, even though officials in his administration boasted about its implementation and have said that it was designed to act as a deterrent to parents who are thinking about bringing their children to the U.S. illegally.
"We need Democrats' support. They don't want to give it because Democrats love open borders," he said. He also falsely accused them of wanting to "infest" the country with undocumented immigrants, including members of the gang MS-13.
It wasn't just Democrats who objected to that verbiage.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtninen, R-Fla., took Trump to task on twitter.
The fight over the separation of families is playing out against the backdrop of Trump's latest push to advance the rest of his immigration agenda, which had stalled out in Congress. Republican leaders in the House have been working to put legislation on the floor that would address those items, as well as the fate of recipients of President Barack Obama's Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals program. Trump tried to end that program, which shielded certain undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children, from deportation.
But his action has been frozen by the courts.
Now, the Republican-led Congress is trying to help him on all counts, and House GOP leaders have invited him to address their conference Tuesday evening in advance of votes on two bills — a conservative measure written by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and a leadership-backed "compromise" bill — that two GOP leadership sources told NBC News would likely take place on Thursday.
But Trump has been a difficult partner at times.
He created chaos and confusion for hours on Friday after saying that he wouldn't sign the compromise immigration bill — which reflects an agreement between conservatives and moderates in GOP ranks but not Democrats — even though it includes all of the items he's demanded.
By the end of the day, White House officials walked back the comments, arguing that Trump misspoke and that he does support the bill.The compromise bill, released last Thursday, would require the Department of Homeland Security to house families together while parents are going through criminals proceedings for a misdemeanor of first-time illegal border crossing, a House Republican source familiar with the measure's drafting said Tuesday.
The source also said that the bill eliminates a 20-day cap on DHS administrative custody for accompanied children so that families will be kept together in DHS custody throughout the proceedings. The legislation, however, is still being finalized and an updated version is expected to be circulated Tuesday and discussed at the evening meeting with Trump.
The deal to vote on the two bills followed two weeks of negotiations. The compromise measure also includes provisions that would provide legal status for people who came to the U.S. illegally as children — including a path to citizenship and provide $25 billion in additional funding for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
But just hours before he was set to address them, Trump said he would ask Republicans for changes to their legislation.
"We have one chance to get it right, or let's just keep going," Trump said Tuesday.
Of course, he has a little more time than his allies in Congress. He's not on the ballot again until 2020.