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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 McConnellGOP increasingly balks at calling Jan. 6 an insurrection Black lawmakers warn against complacency after Juneteenth victory Graham quips key to working with Trump: We both 'like him' MORE (R-Ky.), Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerCentrists gain foothold in infrastructure talks; cyber attacks at center of Biden-Putin meeting Five takeaways on the Supreme Court's Obamacare decision Senate confirms Chris Inglis as first White House cyber czar MORE (D-N.Y.), Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanNow we know why Biden was afraid of a joint presser with Putin Zaid Jilani: Paul Ryan worried about culture war distracting from issues 'that really concern him' The Memo: Marjorie Taylor Greene exposes GOP establishment's lack of power MORE (R-Wis.) and House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiGOP increasingly balks at calling Jan. 6 an insurrection Overnight Energy: Lake Mead's decline points to scary water future in West | White House leads opposition to raising gas tax | Biden taps ex-New Mexico lawmaker for USDA post Trump against boycotting Beijing Olympics in 2022 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 TrumpHead of firms that pushed 'Italygate' theory falsely claimed VA mansion was her home: report Centrists gain foothold in infrastructure talks; cyber attacks at center of Biden-Putin meeting VA moving to cover gender affirmation surgery through department health care 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 FlakeOn The Trail: Arizona is microcosm of battle for the GOP Trump looms large over fractured Arizona GOP Why Republican politicians are sticking with Trump 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 DurbinDick DurbinOvernight Health Care: Takeaways on the Supreme Court's Obamacare decision | COVID-19 cost 5.5 million years of American life | Biden administration investing billions in antiviral pills for COVID-19 COVID-19 long-haulers press Congress for paid family leave Joe Manchin keeps Democrats guessing on sweeping election bill 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 CornynBlack lawmakers warn against complacency after Juneteenth victory The Senate is where dreams go to die Federal government to observe Juneteenth holiday on Friday 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 Hill's Morning Report - After high-stakes Biden-Putin summit, what now? Border state governors rebel against Biden's immigration chaos Garland strikes down Trump-era asylum decisions 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 TillisCentrists gain foothold in infrastructure talks; cyber attacks at center of Biden-Putin meeting Centrists gain leverage over progressives in Senate infrastructure battle Lawmakers rally around cyber legislation following string of attacks MORE (N.C.) and James LankfordJames Paul LankfordSenate passes resolution condemning recent rise in antisemitic attacks Police reform negotiations enter crucial stretch GOP turns against Jan. 6 probe as midterm distraction 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 KingPence to visit Iowa to headline event for congressman Former Steve King challenger on rural voters in GOP states: 'They hate Democrats' First Democrat announces Senate bid against Iowa's Grassley 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 GrassleyChuck Grassley 64 percent of Iowans say 'time for someone else' to hold Grassley's Senate seat: poll Five takeaways on the Supreme Court's Obamacare decision On The Money: Yellen, Powell brush off inflation fears | Fed keeps rates steady, upgrades growth projections 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 SandersCentrists gain foothold in infrastructure talks; cyber attacks at center of Biden-Putin meeting Democrats facing tough reelections back bipartisan infrastructure deal The Hill's Morning Report - ObamaCare here to stay 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 RubioWhite House denies pausing military aid package to Ukraine The Hill's Morning Report - ObamaCare here to stay Lawmakers rally around cyber legislation following string of attacks 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.”