Democrats want to use the end-of-year, must-pass spending bill to push top agenda items, such as immigration and health care, but are divided over what should be a red line and what can fall by the wayside.
“What’s a very important to one person may be a minor issue to someone else. So we have to listen to everyone and move the process,” said Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), the ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee.
Democrats have not yet embarked on a formal process of tallying priorities ahead of what promises to be a grueling budget fight in December, when government funding expires. That leaves individual members and groups to raise the profile of their key issues.
“Certain issues have more vociferous advocates within our conference, and as you know, typically, most things will get done in the 11th hour,” said Rep. Brian Higgins (D-N.Y.), a member of the House Budget Committee.
“Everything is on the table at this point,” he added.
Front and center in the debate is a solution for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which gives legal cover to 690,000 immigrants brought into the country as children without legal permission.
President Trump pulled the plug on the program in September, but gave Congress until March to legislate a permanent fix for the program's recipients.
Democrats have since championed the Dream Act, a bill that would grant work permits and residency with a path to citizenship to nearly two million so-called Dreamers — DACA recipients plus other young immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children.
“We are determined that this Dream Act will be the law of the land before this year is out,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) Wednesday.
Democrats have tacked their collective political future to a solution for Dreamers, leaving little doubt that they're willing to risk an ugly, protracted shutdown battle in exchange for the Dream Act or similar legislation.
And if they don’t get it done, they are likely to be hit hard by constituencies demanding action.
“There’s a lot of reason why immigrant advocates have some mistrust toward Democrats in leadership; there’s a history there,” Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, said, alluding to past disappointments on immigration reform.
“As someone who has shared that mistrust, I have more trust in [Sen. Richard] Durbin [(D-Ill.)], [Sen. Charles] Schumer [(D-N.Y.)] and Pelosi than I’ve ever had … because it’s in their political interest to deliver a deal that excites the base,” he added
Beyond DACA, however, the party is split on what else should constitute a red line in the spending talks. And Rep. John YarmuthJohn Allen YarmuthOn The Money — Manchin slams brakes on Biden spending push House Budget chief praises Powell as Biden mulls replacement Democrats brace for new spending fights over Biden agenda MORE (Ky.), senior Democrat on the Budget Committee, warned of risks if the Democrats “ask for too much.”
“It’s going to differ from member to member,” he said. “[But ] we can’t have too many red lines.”
Another priority is funding the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which expired this month, and for which Republicans want spending offsets.
“We’re very focused on a good, solid budget without a lot of crazy riders, important programs like CHIP, on Puerto Rico — we’re doing the supplemental now, but just making sure we’re doing the appropriate emergency response, none of these draconian budget cuts,” said Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Emissions heading toward pre-pandemic levels The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by National Industries for the Blind - What do Manchin and Sinema want? Warren, Daines introduce bill honoring 13 killed in Kabul attack MORE (D-Va.), laying out a laundry list of issues.
Another health care item that Democrats are considering adding to the omnibus are payments to insurers under ObamaCare that help low-income people get health care. Trump stopped these “CSR” payments this month, setting up significant increases in health-care premiums.
Both Yarmuth and Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-N.M.) suggested Democratic leaders should insist on a package that includes at least three provisions: DACA, CSRs and CHIP funding.
“If I were in the negotiating room [I’d say], ‘Here’s our package. That’s it. And if you want anything else — and they’re going to want all sorts of anything else — these things have to be together,’” Lujan Grisham said.
“I think there are enough Democrats who, for one of those [three] reasons would be willing to shut the government down, that we can legitimately say to Republicans, ‘Unless you do these three things, we don’t have enough votes to give you,’” Yarmuth echoed.
And of course, Democrats also have major goals for the spending deal itself, including an early demand that any increases in defense spending be matched dollar-for-dollar with hikes in non-defense programs.
“We are insisting on parity,” Pelosi said Thursday. “If they are going to lift the caps on the defense side, they're going to lift the caps on the domestic discretionary side, as well.”
They also will need to relitigate fights to keep “poison pills” out, such as Trump’s proposed border wall and defunding Planned Parenthood.
Some Democrats worry that all the additional issues will crowd out the central questions on spending.
“There are some in the party who think that these fights should stick to appropriations and that’s all,” said a House Democratic aide.
Rep. Keith EllisonKeith EllisonMinnesota AG ups charges against ex-police officer in shooting of Daunte Wright Trump campaign, RNC refund donors another .8 million in 2021: NYT Attorneys general looking into online fundraising practices MORE (D-Minn.), on the other hand, was adamant that a large wish list would pose no problems, and might be a better strategy for increasing overall wins.
“I don’t think there’s too many issues,” he said. “I think everything that we just discussed is super important, and I think we’ve had bills that embraced multiple subjects in the past, and I think that if they need Democratic votes, they need to do something that Democrats want. It’s as simple as that.”
Democratic leadership is hoping to reduce the load by striking deals on some of the issues ahead of time.
Democrats are pressing GOP leaders to consider the DACA issue before December’s budget debate, but it's unlikely Republicans will bring stand-alone DACA legislation to the floor, both because of divisions within their conference and because it would open the door for Democrats to try to tack on other priorities to the spending bill.
But Lujan Grisham warned against ranking certain wish-list items against others, which could empower Republicans to target the lesser priorities for the chopping block.
"[That’s] one of the reasons we’re continuing to say, ‘Do DACA now,’” she said. “We want to eliminate, to the highest degree possible, that any Republican might think that they can get us to rank these.”