Congressional Democrats face a critical decision this week as negotiations to shield 700,000 young undocumented immigrants from deportation stall: Are they willing to shut the government down to protect Dreamers?
Government funding runs out on Friday. And with talks about a bipartisan budget and immigration deal on the rocks, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) are preparing a fourth short-term spending measure to buy more time to negotiate.
But as the March 5 end date for the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program looms, Democrats are under increased pressure to hold the line for a solution on immigration. Outside groups have urged Democrats to vote against any legislation until the matter is addressed, and some progressives are itching for a shutdown fight that forces Republicans to deal on immigration.
Yet there may be enough moderate Democrats in the Senate — who are not eager to shut the government down over the issue — willing to push forward another short-term punt in funding.
“I think everyone has the empathy and compassion and want to help these young people who are stranded and we’re trying to find that,” Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said Tuesday. “But shutting down the government is not going to help them.”
Other Democrats are taking a tougher tone.
“Time’s up,” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters on Tuesday, adding Republicans take for granted Democrats’ long-held conviction against shutting down the government.
“We want to keep the government open. But I will repeat, we’re not going to be held hostage to do things that we think are contrary to the best interests of the American people because we will do the right thing and [Republicans] don’t care,” Hoyer said.
Republicans said they hoped to avoid a government closure.
“I think it would be a terrible mistake to shut down the government and particularly while we are negotiating in good faith. Just because we’re not meeting their deadline, that’s not really very productive,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) said Tuesday.
Cornyn and other deputy leaders — Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) — continue to engage in immigration talks that Republicans are hopeful will yield a deal.
Cornyn said he spoke with McCarthy over the weekend and Durbin on Tuesday morning. Their staffs met again Tuesday afternoon with White House legislative affairs director Marc Short, who told reporters there was some progress but declined to elaborate on details.
“We think we’ll avoid a shutdown,” Short said. “It’s important to avoid a shutdown.”
Short did, however, say that the prospects of reaching an immigration deal this week was “fairly herculean.”
“It can’t just be an agreement between six senators,” Cornyn continued, referencing the bipartisan agreement Durbin and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) presented last week that was dismissed by the White House. “It has to be one that will pass both houses and that the president would sign and I’m committed to making sure we stay at it until we find a solution.”
Short and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly are expected to meet with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus on Wednesday morning. CHC members held a series of calls over the weekend to discuss strategy and then released a statement seemingly in opposition to the Graham-Durbin deal without mentioning the proposal by name.
But Democrats remain pessimistic that the group of No. 2 leaders can reach an agreement and some have said privately they think the talks are an effort by Republicans to stall on immigration to secure Democratic votes to keep the government open.
Meanwhile, lawmakers in the House and Senate are trying to position their competing bills as the baseline for negotiations, illustrating that members aren’t even in agreement on where to focus immigration talks with the government funding deadline just days away.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) challenged GOP leaders to bring the bipartisan Senate bill to the floor for a vote, calling it the “last train leaving the station.”
But a bipartisan group of House lawmakers held a competing press conference Tuesday, pushing a much narrower proposal. It would address Dreamers and border security but not touch the controversial aspects of the Senate proposal, including changes to family-based migration and the diversity visa lottery.
The House bill, its 40-plus cosponsors argue, is just narrow enough to win bipartisan support in both chambers without alienating key minority groups like the Senate plan, including the CHC, by the Jan. 19 funding deadline.
“Let’s start with something that’s narrow. Let’s start with something that everybody agrees on,” said Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas), a leading co-sponsor. “We haven’t seen a bill that has 218 votes or 60 [votes in the Senate], but this is something that’s a foundation to build upon.”
Party leaders on both sides of the aisle are aware of the House proposal but have not endorsed the bill.
House Democratic leaders haven’t said how the caucus will vote on another short-term spending bill but privately aides said they expect the caucus to follow a strategy similar to what they did in December. House Democrats opposed the proposal until Republicans put up enough votes to pass — and then some vulnerable Democratic frontliners were free to vote in favor.
Democratic leaders have remained steadfast in their unwillingness to strike a long-term budget accord with Republicans until DACA is resolved. But they — particularly Senate Democrats — have been unwilling to withhold votes for temporary funding measures keeping the government open.
Eighteen Senate Democrats voted for a so-called continuing resolution last December, kicking the deadline to Jan. 19. Democratic leaders and centrists fear they’ll be blamed for shuttering federal agencies — and that President Donald Trump’s accusation that they’re doing so to protect undocumented immigrants will backfire.
Still, one senator who voted in favor of the stopgap funding measure in December — independent Sen. Angus King of Maine — signaled that he could switch, but not necessarily over immigration.
“I have not decided. I’m not inclined to support one,” King said in a brief interview. “We need to start doing budgets.”
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) also declined to commit to voting for a stopgap spending bill this week that didn’t address his key priorities, citing community health centers rather than DACA. Any funding bill “has to have” those priorities included, he told reporters.
Of course, GOP leaders are experiencing their own internal tensions. House Republican sources say they currently don’t have the 218 votes to carry a short-term spending measure by themselves.
Defense hawks in the party are furious that leaders have yet to reach a budget accord to increase Pentagon funding and have threatened to vote against the measure without a long-term funding deal that provides stability for the military.
House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) told reporters Tuesday he thought congressional leaders could reach a spending caps deal as soon as today. But Democratic leaders have shown no desire to strike a long-term funding agreement until DACA is resolved — and could face an intraparty revolt if they did so.
“Frankly, I think it’s not that hard to get a DACA deal, but the question is do they want to?” Thornberry said.
If Ryan can’t muscle the votes from his own party, he’ll have to turn to Democrats. One option being considered includes attaching long-term funding for the children’s health insurance program — an addition that would theoretically entice some House Democrats, particularly Congressional Black Caucus members, to vote for the bill.
In December, when GOP leaders attached a short-term CHIP provision to the stopgap bill funding the government through Jan. 19, some Democrats privately complained about voting against the measure.
It’s unclear, however, if the president’s recent racially charged comments about African countries and Haiti being “shithole” countries will change that calculus. CBC members have discussed censuring the president for those remarks, and over the weekend, civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) blasted the president for what he called racist remarks.
House GOP leaders are also considering including delays of several Obamacare taxes in a stopgap bill in a bid to win over reluctant Republicans.
Should the continuing resolution clear the House, it could face an uphill battle in the Senate, where nine Senate Democrats are needed for passage.
But lawmakers are still hopeful a deal will be reached by Friday.
“I don’t think there’s going to be a shutdown,” Cornyn said. “I think that would be a big mistake.”
Connor O’Brien and Elana Schor contributed to this report.
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