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 McConnellCoronavirus talks on life support as parties dig in, pass blame Jobs report poised to light fire under COVID-19 talks Overnight Health Care: Ohio governor tests positive for COVID-19 ahead of Trump's visit | US shows signs of coronavirus peak, but difficult days lie ahead | Trump: COVID-19 vaccine may be ready 'right around' Election Day MORE (R-Ky.), Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerCoronavirus talks on life support as parties dig in, pass blame Senate Democrats push to include free phone calls for incarcerated people in next relief package Trump backs plan to give airlines another billion in aid MORE (D-N.Y.), Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanBudowsky: Why I back Kennedy, praise Markey Democratic super PAC quotes Reagan in anti-Trump ad set to air on Fox News: 'Are you better off?' Trump lashes out at Reagan Foundation after fundraising request MORE (R-Wis.) and House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiCoronavirus talks on life support as parties dig in, pass blame On The Money: Pessimism grows as coronavirus talks go down to the wire | Jobs report poised to light fire under COVID-19 talks | Tax preparers warn unemployment recipients could owe IRS Top Democrats say postmaster confirmed changes to mail service amid delays 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 TrumpBiden says his faith is 'bedrock foundation of my life' after Trump claim Coronavirus talks on life support as parties dig in, pass blame Ohio governor tests negative in second coronavirus test 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 FlakeCheney clashes with Trump Sessions-Tuberville Senate runoff heats up in Alabama GOP lawmakers stick to Trump amid new criticism 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 DurbinOn The Money: Pessimism grows as coronavirus talks go down to the wire | Jobs report poised to light fire under COVID-19 talks | Tax preparers warn unemployment recipients could owe IRS Pessimism grows as coronavirus talks go down to the wire Senate Democrats demand answers on migrant child trafficking during pandemic 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 CornynSkepticism grows over Friday deadline for coronavirus deal Republicans uncomfortably playing defense Negotiators hit gas on coronavirus talks as frustration mounts 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 SessionsThe 'pitcher of warm spit' — Veepstakes and the fate of Mike Pence FBI officials hid copies of Russia probe documents fearing Trump interference: book Tuberville breaks DC self-quarantine policy to campaign 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 TillisThe Hill's Campaign Report: COVID-19 puts conventions in flux  Sabato's Crystal Ball shifts Iowa Senate race to 'toss-up,' Georgia toward GOP Obama announces first wave of 2020 endorsements MORE (N.C.) and James LankfordJames Paul LankfordSenate GOP opens door to smaller coronavirus deal as talks lag Ballooning Fed balance sheet sparks GOP concerns  The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Rep. Lauren Underwood says Americans face economic crisis if Senate fails to act on unemployment benefits extension; US surpasses 4 million cases, 1,000+ deaths for third straight day 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 KingThe Hill's Campaign Report: Biden builds big lead in battleground Florida Progressive Bowman ousts Engel in New York primary Colorado GOP Rep. Scott Tipton defeated in primary upset 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 GrassleyMcConnell goes hands-off on coronavirus relief bill GOP chairmen hit back at accusation they are spreading disinformation with Biden probe On The Money: Unemployment debate sparks GOP divisions | Pandemic reveals flaws of unemployment insurance programs | Survey finds nearly one-third of rehired workers laid off again 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 SandersBernie SandersOn The Money: Pessimism grows as coronavirus talks go down to the wire | Jobs report poised to light fire under COVID-19 talks | Tax preparers warn unemployment recipients could owe IRS Senators introduce bill to block Trump armed drone sale measure Sanders offers bill to tax billionaires' wealth gains during pandemic 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 RubioPessimism grows as coronavirus talks go down to the wire McConnell: Wearing a mask is 'single most significant thing' to fight pandemic McConnell goes hands-off on coronavirus relief bill 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.”