Itching for a fight, Dems vow to hold the line

Greg Nash

The January battle to keep the government open is the fight Democrats have been itching for.

On three occasions in recent months, Democrats punted on some of their top priorities as the GOP passed short-term funding bills — a strategy that outraged liberals eager for confrontation on issues like immigration and health care.

But with yet another spending deadline approaching on Jan. 19, Democrats say the time has come to hold the line. 

In a Tuesday letter to her troops, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) laid out the party’s top priorities heading into the fight. The Democrats will “insist” on parity between defense and nondefense spending hikes, Pelosi wrote, while pressing “firmly” to protect the young immigrants affected by President Trump’s move to dismantle the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. {mosads}

Pelosi also promised a tough fight over new funding for veterans, pensions, the opioid crisis, health research, disaster aid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).

“Democrats are focused on fulfilling the many long-overdue, bipartisan priorities facing the American people,” she said.

Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) will press their case on Wednesday, when they huddle in the Capitol with Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and two leading White House officials: Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s budget director, and Marc Short, the head of legislative affairs.

Organized by Ryan, the meeting is designed to secure an agreement on the budget caps that will govern the underlying spending debate — a months-long negotiation that’s failed thus far to bear fruit.

But while the Republicans may intend to keep the discussion limited to the question of spending caps, the Democrats have much broader issues in mind.

“Them trying to outline what the meeting is about or not about is not particularly helpful,” said a senior Democratic aide.

The Democrats have plenty of leverage. Not only do they have the power to block bills with a Senate filibuster, but Ryan and House GOP leaders have struggled in recent years to secure even a simple majority for budget bills due to opposition from fiscal hawks in their own party.

“They can’t pass it by themselves,” said the Democratic aide.

The GOP’s need for Democratic votes puts a good deal of pressure on Republican leaders — fresh from a huge victory on tax reform — to forge a strategy that keeps the government running without igniting a full-on revolt from their party’s base.

Complicating their task, the House has only eight legislative days scheduled before funding runs out, and the wave of expiring provisions represents some of the most divisive issues within the GOP, including a law empowering the government to wiretap foreign targets without a warrant.

The immigration issue could prove particularly thorny. Ryan has long insisted that any DACA fix be dealt with outside the spending debate — a notion backed by Trump and other GOP lawmakers pressing for tougher enforcement measures, including a border wall.

But with conservatives expected to oppose the funding omnibus over spending concerns, Democrats will likely have an opportunity to insist on a DACA fix weeks before the program’s March 5 sunset deadline.

They’re facing plenty of pressure from their own side to do just that.

Democratic leaders resisted entreaties to force a battle over DACA in the three continuing resolutions (CR) Congress has passed since September, when Trump announced the end of the program. Most recently, Schumer declined to filibuster a Dec. 21 CR that did not include a  DACA fix, even after House Hispanic lawmakers marched to his Capitol office to press their case. Pelosi, powerless to block that spending bill because Ryan rallied the votes on his own, has said the fight was always dependent on the timing of the omnibus.

“They kicked the can for the omnibus into January. It’s this year, extended,” she said just before the holiday break.

That argument hasn’t soothed many immigrant rights activists, however, who are warning that the Democrats risk losing support in the Hispanic community if they don’t use their leverage more aggressively.

On Wednesday, immigrant rights advocates — joined by celebrities including Alyssa Milano and America Ferrera — will rally at the Los Angeles office of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to deliver an unsubtle message to the Democrats: deliver for the “Dreamers,” or pay a heavy price.

“DREAM Act or primaries,” Ady Barkan, a spokesman from the activist group CPD Action, said Tuesday. “We need Democrats to deliver on their promise to pass a DREAM Act now or we will put our full weight behind primary challengers who are ready to protect our communities.”

Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.), one of Capitol Hill’s most vocal immigrant rights advocates, is sounding a similar alarm.

“With new people becoming deportable every day, House and Senate leaders in both parties should not underestimate the urgency and the passion behind getting the DREAM Act passed right away,” Gutiérrez told The Hill Tuesday. “Our base wants us to fight for what is right — to take a stand against the bigotry and callousness coming from the White House.

“It’s backbone time for Democrats.”

Tags Charles Schumer Dianne Feinstein Donald Trump Mick Mulvaney Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Paul Ryan

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