Congress heads toward showdown over 'Dreamers'

Congress is barreling toward a showdown over immigration in January.

Lawmakers were locked in a flurry of closed-door negotiations and meetings with top White House officials as they tried to make progress on an agreement before wrapping up their work for the year.

Instead, both chambers adjourned without a deal on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, kicking the fight into 2018. The program allows certain immigrants, often called "Dreamers," who came to the United States illegally as children to work and go to school here.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellLawmakers feel pressure on guns Bipartisan group of House lawmakers urge action on Export-Import Bank nominees Curbelo Dem rival lashes out over immigration failure MORE (R-Ky.), Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerDemocrats now attack internet rules they once embraced Schumer: Trump budget would ‘cripple’ gun background checks Schumer: Senate Republicans' silence 'deafening' on guns, Russia MORE (D-N.Y.), Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanRepublicans are avoiding gun talks as election looms The Hill's 12:30 Report Flake to try to force vote on DACA stopgap plan MORE (R-Wis.) and House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiLawmakers feel pressure on guns Former Pelosi challenger: I have no 'interest in running for leadership again' Congress punts fight over Dreamers to March MORE (D-Calif.) are expected to meet with White House officials on Wednesday to discuss myriad upcoming policy fights, including DACA.

The sit-down comes as President TrumpDonald John TrumpAccuser says Trump should be afraid of the truth Woman behind pro-Trump Facebook page denies being influenced by Russians Shulkin says he has White House approval to root out 'subversion' at VA MORE, a wild card in the immigration battle, is doubling down on his demand for funding for a U.S.-Mexico border wall.

“The Democrats have been told, and fully understand, that there can be no DACA without the desperately needed WALL at the Southern Border and an END to the horrible Chain Migration & ridiculous Lottery System of Immigration etc. We must protect our Country at all cost!” he said in a tweet.

The requirement would complicate any effort to get a deal because proposed funding is unlikely to get the 60 votes needed in the Senate.

Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeFlake to try to force vote on DACA stopgap plan Congress punts fight over Dreamers to March Outgoing GOP rep: Republican Party 'heading into trouble' in election MORE (R-Ariz.) noted on Friday that Congress could pass a legislative fix for DACA that “beefs up border security, stops chain migration for the DREAMers, and addresses the unfairness of the diversity lottery.”

“If POTUS wants to protect these kids, we want to help him keep that promise,” he added.

Conservatives have homed in on cracking down on “chain migration” by limiting which family members U.S. citizens and permanent residents can try to sponsor for a green card.

Negotiators are hoping they will have a deal by next month, though wide gaps remain between what GOP lawmakers, the White House and Democrats will accept as part of any agreement.

“My preference obviously would be to do it earlier in January and attach it to the must-pass omnibus bill. That’s just me. ... We just need more time. We’ll run out of runway if we try to do it the end of February,” Flake, who is retiring at the end of his current term, told reporters before the holiday recess.  

Supporters of a DACA fix believe that the spending and budget negotiations give them the most leverage because GOP leadership will need support from Democrats to keep the government open and prevent automatic across-the-board budget cuts.

“Come January we are focused on the caps, the omnibus and the opportunity they present,” said Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinAmerica’s waning commitment to the promise of the First Amendment Senate rejects Trump immigration plan What to watch for in the Senate immigration votes MORE (D-Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat, told The Hill.

Senate GOP leadership has pledged that if lawmakers can strike a deal in January they will bring the legislation up for a vote.

“There is a commitment to bring up a bill on the floor in January, but a bill does not currently exist so we have a lot of work we need to do,” said Senate Majority Whip John CornynJohn CornynLawmakers feel pressure on guns Kasich’s campaign website tones down gun language after Florida shooting Murphy: Trump’s support for background check bill shows gun politics ‘shifting rapidly’ MORE (R-Texas), asked if a commitment had been made to Flake.

McConnell has also downplayed that Democrats will be able to use an upcoming slate of fiscal deadlines to gain an advantage in the immigration fight.

“There isn't that much of an emergency there. The president's given us until March,” he said.

Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsUnder pressure, Trump shifts blame for Russia intrusion Overnight Tech: Judge blocks AT&T request for DOJ communications | Facebook VP apologizes for tweets about Mueller probe | Tech wants Treasury to fight EU tax proposal Overnight Regulation: Trump to take steps to ban bump stocks | Trump eases rules on insurance sold outside of ObamaCare | FCC to officially rescind net neutrality Thursday | Obama EPA chief: Reg rollback won't stand MORE announced in September that the administration would end the Obama-era program. 

The decision teed up a mid-March deadline for Congress to pass legislation. If they fail to reach a deal, hundreds of thousands of immigrants will be at risk of being deported.

Lawmakers on both sides have appeared sympathetic to DACA recipients, but a deal has remained elusive.

Negotiators met with White House chief of staff John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE earlier this month but left Washington for the year without key issues resolved, including if DACA recipients would be given a path to citizenship, how many individuals would be covered and what security provisions would be part of a package.

Lawmakers have introduced wildly varying proposals, underscoring the challenge to getting an agreement that could clear both chambers.

GOP Sens. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisPrison sentencing bill advances over Sessions objections Kimmel writer tweets amount NRA has given lawmakers in response to shooting prayers Both sides of immigration fight unhappy with Senate debate MORE (N.C.) and James LankfordJames Paul LankfordAfter Florida school shooting, vows for change but no clear path forward GOP senator: 'The problem is not owning an AR-15' Sunday shows preview: Russian charges, Florida shooting dominate coverage MORE (R-Okla.) offered a bill that would provide a pathway to citizenship.

But that would likely draw backlash from conservatives, who view the DACA program as “amnesty.”

Rep. Steve KingSteven (Steve) Arnold KingThis week: Senate turns toward immigration battle Trump’s assault on immigrant children must stop Fractured GOP struggles with immigration strategy MORE (R-Iowa) told "Breitbart News Tonight" that Trump has a “mandate to build a wall [and] pass domestic [immigration] enforcement legislation.”

Flake told an Arizona radio station over the break that Ryan was “certainly committed” to fixing DACA, but the House Speaker promised conservatives in 2015 that he would not bring up any immigration bill that lacked support from a majority of Republicans.

Meanwhile, top Senate Republicans, including Cornyn and Sen. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyPavlich: The claim Trump let the mentally ill get guns is a lie Congress fails miserably: For Asian-Americans, immigration proposals are personal attacks Grassley, Dems step up battle over judicial nominees MORE (R-Iowa), introduced the SECURE Act, which would pair a temporary extension of DACA with border security.

McConnell, who has sidestepped saying if he believes Dreamers should be given a path to citizenship, noted that he supports the principles included in the GOP legislation.

But that bill incorporates some provisions considered a non-starter for Democrats, including targeting cities that don’t comply with federal immigration law.

Democratic leadership is under growing pressure to take a hard stance on the immigration fight after failing to get a deal as part of an end-of-the-year stopgap bill.

Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersDems ponder gender politics of 2020 nominee 2020 Dem contenders travel to key primary states After Florida school shooting, vows for change but no clear path forward MORE (I-Vt.), who was one of several senators who voted against December’s short-term funding bill, appeared to blame Republicans for the delay.

“That the Republicans have been so busy trying to give tax breaks to billionaires and ignoring this crisis is a very, very sad state of affairs. ... We need, absolutely, to protect the Dreamers and pass that legislation,” he told CNN’s “State of the Union.”

But progressive outside groups and immigration activists have grown increasingly frustrated with Schumer and Pelosi.

“This is a monumental failure of leadership on the part of Democratic leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi,” Murshed Zaheed, the political director for Credo, said after lawmakers left for the year without a deal.

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus didn’t specifically call out Democratic leadership but noted that they will “leverage every single opportunity to keep all Congressional leaders committed to the goal of permanently protecting Dreamers by mid-January.”

Democrats are warning Republicans to avoid attaching larger fights, like curbs to legal immigration or tougher interior enforcement legislation to, any deal.

But Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioColbert: Students taking action on gun violence 'give me hope' Lawmakers feel pressure on guns Florida lawmaker's aide fired after claiming shooting survivors were 'actors' MORE (R-Fla.), who initially worked on the 2013 comprehensive legislation, warned that the demand was “unrealistic.”

“It’s unrealistic to think you’re going to get 60 votes in the Senate and a majority of the House and a presidential signature on a permanent change to the immigration status of hundreds of thousands of people and not pair that up with permanent changes in enforcement,” he told a local Florida paper.

He added that “the obsessive opposition to anything that involves enforcement by those on the left is beyond me.”