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A woman holds a sign during a rally calling for the passage of a clean Dream Act outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., September 26, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque(reuters_tickers)
By Richard Cowan and Jeff Mason
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump and top aides have urged conservative Republicans in Congress to craft legislation protecting "Dreamers" brought illegally to the United States as children, a move that could jeopardise efforts to work with Democrats on the issue.
Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and other officials have reached out to more than a dozen Republicans, including some of the loudest anti-immigration voices in Congress.
The consultations followed a dinner Trump held earlier this month with the top two congressional Democrats, Senator Chuck Schumer and Representative Nancy Pelosi.
The president discussed with the two Democrats legislation to shield from deportation roughly 800,000 young immigrants known as Dreamers.
In comments that angered Trump's conservative political base, White House officials said Trump would not necessarily insist on funding for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border as a condition for helping the Dreamers. Trump's pledge to build a border wall was a central theme of his 2016 presidential campaign.
Earlier this month, Trump rescinded an Obama-era programme that shielded Dreamers from deportation, but gave the Republican-controlled Congress - long gridlocked over immigration - six months to come up with legislation to address the issue.
The recent consultations with Republicans included a dinner that Pence hosted for a group of conservative lawmakers at his residence.
Republican Representative Mark Walker, who attended the dinner with Pence, said the administration was delivering a stark warning: Trump wants conservatives to participate in offering ideas for a Dreamer bill. If they do not, they will be frozen out of the discussions.
Walker, chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, said White House officials had made clear that Trump was willing to work with Democrats and moderate Republicans on a Dreamer bill if that was the only option.
The outreach to conservatives suggests the administration is trying to minimize the potential backlash from Trump's base over the Dreamer issue. Many conservatives staunchly oppose protection from deportation for any illegal immigrants, viewing it as a form of amnesty.
But any effort to bring conservatives on board with legislation could alienate Democrats.
Among other Republicans who have been contacted by the administration are House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, Representative Steve King and Senator Tom Cotton, who have pushed hard for strict immigration limits and tougher law enforcement.
The White House said administration officials had also reached out to other Republicans, like Representative Mario Diaz-Balart, who in the past participated in negotiations on immigration reform.
A White House official told Reuters that in conversations with Republicans, the administration was offering "principles" for Dreamer legislation that included building the border wall and expanding the use by companies of the "E-verify" system to check the legal status of new hires.
Both are initiatives Democrats strongly oppose.
Republican Representative Mark Meadows, chairman of the hard-line conservative House Freedom Caucus, said there had been "ongoing conversations" between lawmakers and the administration. He added members of his caucus were looking at ideas for an immigration bill.
A senior Democratic aide said Democratic leaders were awaiting an offer from the White House that would build on Trump's mid-September agreement to collaborate on a Dreamer bill.
The aide said Democrats "look forward" to engaging Trump on a border security package sketched out at the dinner with the president, which did not include most of the conservative ideas now being floated in Congress.
(Reporting by Richard Cowan and Jeff Mason; Editing by Caren Bohan and Peter Cooney)