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Dem shutdown strategy: Force McConnell to deal
Senate Democrats say they have the votes to block a government funding stopgap measure that is expected to pass the House on Thursday evening, but they're hoping to avoid a government shutdown that could inflict political damage on their vulnerable incumbents.
Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) wants to force GOP leaders to the negotiating table to work out a deal to protect "Dreamers" from deportation, reauthorize the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and increase discretionary spending caps.
A senior Democratic aide said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) won't have "near enough" votes to pass the four-week stopgap under consideration in the House that would extend funding for CHIP by six years and delay three unpopular ObamaCare taxes.
"We want Republicans to need to negotiate," said the aide, who added that Democrats wouldn't be blamed for a possible government shutdown because the temporary funding measure expected from the House will fail in the face of bipartisan opposition.
Democrats would like to add an immigration reform bill to the spending package that would protect from deportation an estimated 800,000 immigrants who came to the country at a young age.
They also want to fund CHIP for another decade, instead of the six-year span favored by the House, and raise spending levels for defense and nondefense programs by roughly equal amounts.
Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Mike Rounds (S.D.) and Rand Paul (Ky.) have said they will vote against the House spending stopgap bill, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is expected to miss the vote because he is recovering from cancer treatment.
McConnell needs 60 votes to advance the House bill past a Democratic filibuster. Down four votes in his own conference, he would need at least 13 Democrats to move forward - and he doesn't appear anywhere close to having that number.
So far, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who is running for reelection in a state President Trump won by 42 points, is the only Democrat who has said definitively he will vote for the House stopgap if it makes it to the Senate, according to The Hill's whip list.
The Democratic strategy is to force GOP leaders to admit they need to negotiate with Schumer and Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.), who is leading the negotiations to replace the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which Trump rescinded in September.
The president gave Congress a deadline of March 5 to replace DACA, creating an uncertain future for the thousands of people who have enrolled in the program.
Democrats want McConnell to agree to a short-term government funding bill that would give them more time to negotiate an immigration solution, along with a longer-term CHIP extension and higher discretionary spending caps.
They have support from a handful of Republicans, including Sens. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) and Graham, who are calling for passage of a multiday spending bill to avoid a shutdown and give leaders more time to reach a broader deal.
Democrats believe a bipartisan Senate bill co-sponsored by Durbin, Graham, Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) could serve as the basis of an immigration deal that can win broader Republican support.
The No. 2-ranking leaders of both parties in both chambers have now taken over the immigration talks: Durbin, Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn (Texas), House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.).
Durbin walked over to McCarthy's office Thursday afternoon to continue the negotiations.
McConnell, however, has made it clear that he does not support attaching an immigration bill to spending legislation, something he reiterated in a news conference Wednesday.
"Let me tell you again how it's going to be handled in the Senate: separately from the spending negotiation, and a bill the president is willing to sign," he said, referring to immigration legislation.
The immigration talks have been thrown into confusion by conflicting messages from Trump.
At a bipartisan meeting on immigration last week, the president indicated he would sign into law whatever Congress passed.
But then later in the week and again this week, he panned the bipartisan Durbin-Flake-Graham proposal.
Trump said Wednesday the bill is "horrible" on border security and "very, very weak" on reforming the immigration system overall.
But Durbin, a lead Democratic negotiator, insisted Thursday that immigration should be addressed as part of the spending bill. He said a mere promise to vote on the bipartisan bill would not be enough to smooth the path for the government funding stopgap.
McConnell has tried to steer his Republican colleagues away from backing a three-day or weeklong temporary spending measure in order to ratchet up pressure on vulnerable Democrats.
He wants Senate Democrats running for reelection in states won by Trump to face the tough choice of voting for the House measure or risking a possible shutdown. The chance to vote for a weeklong spending bill to keep the government open would alleviate the pressure on them.
"The leader said he heard some talk about a short-term [continuing resolution] and asked, 'Why would we do that? What does it get us?' " said a Republican senator who summarized McConnell's message to the Senate GOP conference at a Thursday lunch meeting.
Cornyn told reporters during the day that the GOP leadership had no intention of passing a shorter-term funding bill.
"No, we're not going to do it," he said.