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 McConnellElection agency limps into 2020 cycle The Hill's Morning Report - Will Joe Biden's unifying strategy work? Dems charge ahead on immigration MORE (R-Ky.), Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerMJ Hegar announces Texas Senate bid Hillicon Valley: House Dems subpoena full Mueller report | DOJ pushes back at 'premature' subpoena | Dems reject offer to view report with fewer redactions | Trump camp runs Facebook ads about Mueller report | Uber gets B for self-driving cars Dem legal analyst says media 'overplayed' hand in Mueller coverage MORE (D-N.Y.), Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanAppeals court rules House chaplain can reject secular prayers FEC filing: No individuals donated to indicted GOP rep this cycle The Hill's Morning Report - Waiting on Mueller: Answers come on Thursday MORE (R-Wis.) and House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiDemocrats are playing voters on their fantasies for impeachment The Hill's Morning Report - Trump tells House investigators 'no' Seven big decisions facing Biden in 2020 primary 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 TrumpForget the spin: Five unrefuted Mueller Report revelations Lara Trump: Merkel admitting migrants 'one of the worst things that ever happened to Germany' Financial satisfaction hits record high: survey 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 FlakePollster says Trump unlikely to face 'significant' primary challenge Trump gives nod to vulnerable GOP Sen. McSally with bill signing Flake opens up about threats against him and his family 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 DurbinDurbin calls Mueller report findings on Trump team 'troubling' Congress opens door to fraught immigration talks McConnell: 'Past time' for immigration-border security deal 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 CornynOn The Money: Fed pick Moore says he will drop out if he becomes a 'political problem' | Trump vows to fight 'all the subpoenas' | Deutsche Bank reportedly turning Trump records over to NY officials | Average tax refund down 2 percent Kushner saying immigration plan will be 'neutral' on legal admissions: report Cornyn campaign, Patton Oswalt trade jabs over comedian's support for Senate candidate 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 SessionsForget the spin: Five unrefuted Mueller Report revelations Sessions: It's time to accept the results of the Mueller report and move on Trump poised to roll back transgender health protections 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 TillisDem super PAC campaign urges Republicans to back impeachment McConnell pledges to be 'Grim Reaper' for progressive policies Pro-life Christians are demanding pollution protections MORE (N.C.) and James LankfordJames Paul LankfordHow Republicans are battling judicial obstructionism today GOP gets used to saying 'no' to Trump GOP to go 'nuclear' with rules change for Trump nominations 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 KingSteve King says he can relate to suffering of Jesus The Hill's Morning Report — Combative Trump aims at Pelosi before Russia report Steve King's campaign spent more than it raised last quarter 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 GrassleyCongress can retire the retirement crisis On The Money: Inside the Mueller report | Cain undeterred in push for Fed seat | Analysis finds modest boost to economy from new NAFTA | White House says deal will give auto sector B boost The 7 most interesting nuggets from the Mueller report 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) SandersElection analyst says Biden could face uphill battle attracting small-dollar donors Gillibrand 'not worried' about being 'discounted' in 2020 race Biden's sloppy launch may cost him 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 RubioDems plot aggressive post-Mueller moves, beginning with McGahn Senate Republicans tested on Trump support after Mueller Cuban negotiator says Trump's efforts to destabilize Cuba's government will fail 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.”