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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.

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGraham: I hope Dems 'get their ass kicked' for conduct around Kavanaugh Saudi mystery drives wedge between Trump, GOP Overnight Defense: Trump worries Saudi Arabia treated as 'guilty until proven innocent' | McConnell opens door to sanctions | Joint Chiefs chair to meet Saudi counterpart | Mattis says Trump backs him '100 percent' MORE (R-Ky.), Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerMcConnell says deficits 'not a Republican problem' Medicare for All is disastrous for American seniors and taxpayers Senate Dems race to save Menendez in deep-blue New Jersey MORE (D-N.Y.), Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanSaudi mystery drives wedge between Trump, GOP GOP group makes late play in Iowa seat once seen as lost Adelsons donated M in September to help GOP in midterms MORE (R-Wis.) and House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiElection Countdown: Dems outraise GOP in final stretch | 2018 midterms already most expensive in history | What to watch in second Cruz-O'Rourke debate | Trump raises 0M for reelection | Why Dems fear Avenatti's approach GOP strategist says Trump could want border wall fight to continue to excite base McConnell says deficits 'not a Republican problem' 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 TrumpFive takeaways from Cruz, O'Rourke's debate showdown Arpaio files libel suit against New York Times IMF's Christine Lagarde delays trip to Middle East 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 FlakeIMF's Christine Lagarde delays trip to Middle East Saudi mystery drives wedge between Trump, GOP Election Countdown: Dems outraise GOP in final stretch | 2018 midterms already most expensive in history | What to watch in second Cruz-O'Rourke debate | Trump raises 0M for reelection | Why Dems fear Avenatti's approach 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 DurbinGOP senators: Mnuchin should not go to Saudi Arabia Durbin opposes Saudi arms sale over missing journalist Noisy democracy, or rude people behaving like children? 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 CornynFive takeaways from Cruz, O'Rourke's debate showdown Live coverage: Cruz faces O'Rourke in Texas debate showdown Trump, Feinstein feud intensifies over appeals court nominees 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 SessionsDepartment of Justice right to go after Hezbollah Sessions defends media following disappearance of Saudi journalist Trump goes on 12-tweet Twitter tirade 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 TillisDems angered by GOP plan to hold judicial hearings in October Kavanaugh tensions linger after bitter fight GOP fractured over filling Supreme Court vacancies in 2020 MORE (N.C.) and James LankfordJames Paul LankfordCollusion judgment looms for key Senate panel GOP loads up lame-duck agenda as House control teeters The Hill's Morning Report — Kavanaugh, Ford saga approaches bitter end 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 KingJulián Castro says he’s 'likely' to run in 2020 Steve King: Julian and Joaquin Castro learned Spanish to ‘qualify as retroactive Hispanics’ House conservatives want ethics probe into Dems' handling of Kavanaugh allegations 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 GrassleyDems angered by GOP plan to hold judicial hearings in October American Bar Association dropping Kavanaugh review Clinton's security clearance withdrawn at her request 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) SandersFive takeaways from Cruz, O'Rourke's debate showdown Live coverage: Cruz faces O'Rourke in Texas debate showdown Saudi mystery drives wedge between Trump, GOP 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 RubioSaudi mystery drives wedge between Trump, GOP Overnight Defense: Trump worries Saudi Arabia treated as 'guilty until proven innocent' | McConnell opens door to sanctions | Joint Chiefs chair to meet Saudi counterpart | Mattis says Trump backs him '100 percent' Dems can use subpoena power to reclaim the mantle of populism 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.”