By Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A group of U.S. Senate Republicans and Democrats promoted an immigration proposal on Wednesday to step up border security and protect young illegal immigrants, but its prospects appeared uncertain as President Donald Trump urged Congress to support a tougher measure.
The developments underlined the difficult path any immigration plan faces as Washington remains starkly divided on one of Trump's signature issues. Congress has repeatedly tried and failed to overhaul immigration policy over the past decade.
The new bipartisan plan would protect from deportation 1.8 million immigrants, known as "Dreamers," brought into the United States illegally as children, according to Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, one of the senators who crafted the plan.
Graham said the parents of the Dreamers, also in the country illegally, would get no such safeguards, a concession to the White House.
Democrats and some Republicans want to provide legal status for the Dreamers. Senate legislation that Trump supports would protect the Dreamers and give them a path to citizenship, but he also is seeking to scale back legal immigration, a red flag for many lawmakers. The bipartisan plan does not embrace Trump's call to significantly cut legal immigration levels, according to senators involved in the discussions.
The bipartisan proposal would open the door to building at least part of a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border that Trump has called for as a candidate and as president.
It would provide $25 billion to bolster border security, Graham said. That could pay for additional border patrol officers, fencing and electronic surveillance, among other options that have been widely discussed among lawmakers.
In a statement released by the White House, Trump urged the Senate to support legislation offered by Republican Senator Chuck Grassley that would also scale back two immigration programs that bring more than 300,000 people into the United States each year.
Grassley's bill would restrict the ability of U.S. residents to bring family members from overseas and end a visa lottery program aimed at bringing in more immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa and other countries with low U.S. immigration rates.
"I am asking all senators, in both parties, to support the Grassley bill," Trump said.
Republican Senator Jeff Flake, one of the bipartisan plan's architects, said he would try to advance the bill despite Trump's opposition.
"He can veto it or he can sign it. But we've got to pass it," Flake told reporters.
Democrats said Trump's demand was frustrating efforts to reach a narrower deal they could support. Republicans control the Senate 51-49 but immigration legislation would need 60 votes to pass, meaning some Democratic support is required.
Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, speaking on the Senate floor, said, "President Trump is trying to force his hard-line immigration agenda down the throats of the American people." He called the Grassley bill "extreme."
'CLEAR THE WAY'
Trump in September announced he was rescinding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, created in 2012 under his Democratic predecessor President Barack Obama, that protects Dreamers from deportation and offers them work permits. About 700,000 are currently protected by the DACA program.
Those protections are due to start expiring on March 5, but federal judges have blocked Trump's bid to end DACA while litigation over the matter continues.
If the bipartisan immigration plan passes the Senate, it faces an uncertain fate in the House of Representatives, where Republicans hold a larger majority. House Speaker Paul Ryan has said he will not bring up a bill for a vote if it does not have Trump's support.
Ryan said on Wednesday the House "clearly" must address legislation next month to deal with the Dreamers. He told reporters Trump "did a very good job of putting a sincere offer on the table."
The White House said on Wednesday it also opposes another bipartisan immigration measure proposed by Senators John McCain and Chris Coons, saying it would boost illegal immigration and fail to fix other immigration practices opposed by Trump.
(Additional reporting by Susan Heavey; Writing by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Will Dunham)