Shutdown threat growing over immigration fight
Lawmakers are gearing up for an end-of-year fight over a key Obama-era immigration program, raising the chances of a government shutdown.
Senate Republicans and President Trump agreed during a closed-door White House meeting on Thursday that they would oppose addressing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program as part of the December funding legislation.
But that stance is unacceptable to Democrats and their immigration allies, who want Congress to pass a legislative fix before going home for Christmas.
The fight over undocumented immigrants brought into the country as children is emerging as the largest hurdle to avoiding a government shutdown after Dec. 8.
Democrats believe they have leverage to demand an immigration deal going into the end-of-year negotiations because GOP leadership will likely need their votes to keep the government open.
They are signaling, despite the decision from the president, that they will keep DACA in the December talks until Republicans show they can pass a spending bill on their own.
“Unless Republicans can keep the government open without Democratic votes, this is not their decision to make. I have yet to see any evidence that they will be able to do that,” said Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.
Drew Hammill, a spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), added that “Republicans can talk to themselves in the mirror all they want, but the fact is the vote is the currency of the realm and Republicans frequently find themselves holding an empty wallet.”
House Republicans, because they’re in the majority, can pass a government funding bill without House Democrats if they can hold together most of the caucus — an uphill battle, given the chamber’s unwieldy conservative factions.
And with a 60-vote procedural hurdle in the Senate, Republicans will need the support of at least eight Democrats to pass a funding bill — and they will likely need even more help if they can’t win over GOP senators who perennially vote “no” on spending bills.
Senate Democratic leadership is largely holding their fire on making shutdown threats, so far, instead stressing that they believe a DACA fix needs to pass this year.
“We are going to do everything we can to get it done, no matter what the President says on one given day or another,” Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said after the White House meeting.
“We have to find a way to get this done before the end of the year,” Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat, separately told reporters. “[This] limits the opportunities.”
Trump decided earlier this year that he would phase out DACA, which allows undocumented immigrants brought into the country as children to work and go to school without fear of deportation. The program will end on March 5.
If lawmakers do not act, hundreds of thousands of immigrants would be at risk of being deported.
But Democrats are under pressure from activists, outside groups and progressives to get legislation cleared this year. They view a government funding bill as their best, and potentially only, shot.
“This is how we are going to frame it: If you vote for the omnibus, you are voting for the deportation of Dreamers,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a powerful pro-immigrant advocacy group. DACA recipients are often referred to as “Dreamers.”
Murshed Zaheed, the political director of CREDO, is pushing Democrats to publicly pledge to oppose any spending bill that doesn’t include an immigration deal.
“Democrats must hold a hard line and refuse to allow protections for Dreamers to come at the expense of their families and communities,” Zaheed said.
Some House Democrats, infuriated by Schumer and Pelosi leaving DACA out of the September spending deal, say they are determined to see action by the end of the year.
“We’ve got to do it [in December]. This is the moment; this is the time,” said Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.). “I think that’s our strongest point.”
Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), head of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, delivered a similar message.
“It’s the one time we’ll have leverage,” she said. “What are we going to do? Sit around twiddling our thumbs and wait for next year when we won’t have any leverage? It doesn’t make any sense.”
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) became the first Senate Democrat to announce that she wouldn’t support a government funding deal without an agreement on DACA.
But in the wake of the decision by Republicans to punt DACA until next year, Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — who, like Harris, are considered contenders for the party’s 2020 nomination — are drawing a similar red line.
“Trump must make good on his promise to sign a bill protecting Dreamers. I won’t vote for any spending bill without a permanent DACA fix,” Sanders said.
Warren added that Trump should “stop playing politics [and] fix this.”
“Let me be clear: If Trump doesn’t keep his word & Congress doesn’t pass a clean DREAM Act, I won’t vote for a spending bill without it,” Warren said.
The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act would give undocumented immigrants brought into the country illegally as children a path to citizenship.
The brinksmanship comes after a move by Trump, Schumer and Pelosi to work on an immigration agreement unraveled.
After Trump told Democratic leaders he would trade a DACA fix for border security measures, the White House released a seven-page list of immigration “priorities” for legislation. Democrats dismissed the demands out of hand.
Further complicating a potential agreement, Trump doubled down this week on requiring a guarantee of funding for the U.S.-Mexico border wall — considered a non-starter for Democrats and some Republicans — as part of any agreement.
“We’re not taking a down payment and then say, ‘Where’s the rest of the money?’ … When we take a down payment, I’m going to say, ‘I want to make sure the rest of the money is coming,’ ” Trump told Fox News.
Not every GOP lawmaker is on board with their party’s DACA strategy or confident that it will work.
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who is retiring at the end of the Congress, is pushing to move a DACA deal this year, and centrist Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), another retiring member, wants a vote on the DREAM Act.
Meanwhile, Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a key appropriator in the House, is skeptical that leadership will be able to get a deal if the immigration fight isn’t resolved.
“I find it hard to believe we’ll get to a spending [deal],” he said, “just listening to Democrats, unless we get to a DACA deal either before or in conjunction with.”
Lawmakers have little time to find a solution to the funding fight, as the rest of November is expected to be consumed by the GOP effort to pass tax legislation.
Republicans — who have struggled to score legislative or political victories — are also under pressure from conservatives to take a hard line as part of the DACA negotiations, adding an extra hurdle to getting a deal quickly and avoiding a shutdown.
But Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who took part in the White House meeting, downplayed that by punting on DACA Republicans were raising the stakes for December. He said that closing the government over an immigration battle would be the Democrats’ decision.
“No, not unless the Democrats are going to shut down the government,” Cornyn said about the potential for a shutdown. “But this is not going to be part of the year-end omnibus or [continuing resolution] … I think everybody understands that but they want to deny the reality.”
— Mike Lillis, Rafael Bernal and Niv Elis contributed.