Immigration in spotlight as budget battle intensifies

Greg Nash - UPI Photo

Congressional leaders are jockeying for position in the legislative battle to keep the government open that is expected to dominate their final weeks in session this year.

Democrats driven to win a legislative fix to an Obama-era program allowing hundreds of thousands of young immigrants to stay and work in the United States signaled flexibility.

Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) in a statement accepting an invitation to meet at the White House on Thursday said a “bipartisan deal” could be found to pass the “DREAM Act along with tough border security measures.”

“There is a bipartisan path forward on all of these items,” the two said in the statement, which also emphasized the need to boost defense and nondefense spending and provide disaster relief.

{mosads}Senate GOP leaders struck a harder line, with Whip John Cornyn (Texas) saying there is “no way” a year-end spending bill will include language to protect the young immigrants.

Cornyn spoke a day after Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) declared it a “ridiculous position” for Democrats to say that a fix on the issue had to come as part of the funding bill.

McConnell noted that Congress has until March before those covered by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program lose protections from the program President Trump is ending.

“I don’t think the Democrats would be very smart to say they want to shut down the government over a nonemergency,” McConnell said on ABC’s “This Week.”

At the same time, both McConnell and Cornyn have suggested that Republicans can agree to a deal on the “Dreamers,” with Cornyn saying it could come before March.

“I’d be happy to do it earlier but not as part of the spending bill, no way,” he said.

The government will shut down on Saturday without a short-term deal to keep funding going.

Lawmakers are expected to approve a two-week measure that would create another deadline to fund the government on Dec. 22, just before the holidays.

Republicans in the House and Senate would like to use the two weeks to agree to top-line numbers for the budget, and then forge a deal on another short-term funding measure that would last until January.

Under that plan, the House and Senate would vote on a bill next month to keep the government funded through the rest of the fiscal year.  

But much uncertainty remains.  

Conservatives in the House Freedom Caucus threw a wrench into the plans for a two-week continuing resolution when they threatened to take down a motion to go to conference on the tax-cut bill with the Senate over demands to move the deadline on the stopgap measure from Dec. 22 to Dec. 30. GOP leaders said they would consider the demand to get the lawmakers to back the conference motion.

Democratic leaders had yet to take a position on the short-term measure, according to a senior Democratic aide.

The budget talks also are taking place with tensions high in Washington over a tax bill approved in the Senate that Democrats complain was rushed through the Congress, and with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of the Trump campaign hanging over everything.

It all raises the stakes for Thursday’s White House meeting, which comes after Democrats boycotted a meeting last week in annoyance with tweets from the president that needled them over their positions. Trump responded to the boycott with a White House photo op that placed the president between two empty chairs for “Chuck and Nancy,” as the president refers to the Democratic leaders.

Publicly and privately, both sides appeared to be lowering temperatures on Monday, for the most part.

“We’re glad the White House has reached out and asked for a second meeting,”
Schumer and Pelosi said in their statement. “We hope the president will go into this meeting with an open mind, rather than deciding that an agreement can’t be reached beforehand.”

Democratic Sens. Dick Durbin (Ill.) and Michael Bennet (Colo.) are in talks with GOP Sen. Jeff Flake (Ariz.) and other Republicans about finding a way to shield Dreamers from deportation.

In exchange for his vote on the tax-cut package last week, Flake said he had received a commitment from McConnell and the White House to work on a legislative fix to the immigration issue.

Both sides are under some pressure from their political bases.

While a number of Republicans in both chambers would like to see a fix for the Dreamers, many conservatives oppose action.

In the Democratic Party, some lawmakers warn of an insurrection if they don’t get a win on the Dreamers issue.

Brent Wilkes, chief executive officer of the League of Latin American Citizens, said failure to reach an agreement this year would be “a complete disaster.”

“It’s important for the parties to get together and get this done and stop delaying,” he added.

GOP leaders are downplaying the likelihood of a quick deal and say pressure to move immigration legislation in tandem with a government-funding bill will only make it tougher to get a deal.

“It’s fair to say that those negotiations are currently at an impasse. But by threatening to shut down the government, they are jeopardizing the future fate of those DACA recipients,” Cornyn said.

Democrats wondered whether Cornyn is trying to scuttle a deal by making tough demands.

The principle proposal being discussed as part of a deal is the DREAM Act, a bill sponsored by Durbin and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) that would grant permanent legal status to an estimated 750,000 to 800,000 immigrants who came to the country illegally as children, as long as they meet certain criteria, such as being enrolled in college, serving in the military or having steady jobs.

Cornyn wants Democrats to agree to a litany of border security and enforcement provisions included in the 462-page immigration security bill he introduced earlier this year in exchange for protecting Dreamers.

He told reporters Monday afternoon that Democrats haven’t even dignified his negotiating position with a counteroffer, raising doubts about whether they’re serious about getting a deal this month.

“I told Sen. Durbin there’s no reason we couldn’t do something earlier rather than later, but [they] refuse to propose a counteroffer to what was formally offered to them and that makes it hard because we are currently at an impasse,” Cornyn said.

“It makes it harder to get a deal so it may well force us to do it in January or February,” he added.

But Democrats dispute this. They say Durbin gave Cornyn a good-faith counteroffer on the Senate floor Friday morning that would have agreed to 12 separate provisions in Cornyn’s bill in exchange for protecting Dreamers.

Tags Charles Schumer Dick Durbin Jeff Flake John Cornyn Lindsey Graham Michael Bennet Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi
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