Washington's Fall Agenda: Showdown looms on border wall

Washington's Fall Agenda: Showdown looms on border wall
© Hill photo illustration/Nicole Vas

Congress and the White House are facing a number of important issues this fall. But the clock is ticking with the November midterms looming and the end of the year fast approaching. Here's a look at Washington's agenda and the key stories The Hill will be watching in the months ahead.

The debate over border wall funding is set to intensify this fall.

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Lawmakers are racing to get nine of their 12 spending bills passed and signed into law before the start of the new fiscal year on Oct. 1. But hovering over their effort is President TrumpDonald John TrumpGrassley: Dems 'withheld information' on new Kavanaugh allegation Health advocates decry funding transfer over migrant children Groups plan mass walkout in support of Kavanaugh accuser MORE’s threat to veto spending bills and force a government shutdown if he doesn’t get funding for his wall on the southern border with Mexico.

Lawmakers plan to pass the nine spending bills while punting legislation that would deal with wall funding, within a  Homeland Security measure,  to December. Congress plans to tie that measure to bills dealing with funding for the departments of State, Commerce and Justice.

The move will help Republican leaders avoid a potentially damaging showdown with Trump before the crucial November midterms. But whether they can do that will depend on Trump.

Expect more maneuvering over the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, as the fight over Trump’s efforts to rescind it winds through the courts.

“It depends a great deal on court cases,” said Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinDurbin: ‘No reason’ for people to remember Kavanaugh at party accuser describes Durbin: Kavanaugh's accuser is not being treated respectfully Grassley to administration: You must consult Congress on refugee cap MORE (D-Ill.) on what’s next in the immigration debate.

“For example, the DACA situation where 800,000 or more are being protected by court order, could change. It could change in a heartbeat and in a court order. It could end up a Supreme Court issue,” he added.

September will mark one year since Trump moved to end DACA and gave Congress six months to legislate a replacement.

Trump’s decision to end DACA was sidelined between January and August  by court injunctions in California, New York and the District of Columbia.

That was followed in May by Texas and six other states suing to terminate the program.

While DACA and so-called Dreamers — immigrants who arrived in the country illegally as children — remain popular with most voters, that means Congress is unlikely to revive contentious immigration talks until the courts have settled the legality of DACA, which has been in place six years.

For now, both sides are claiming they have the inside track.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton told Texas station WFAA in July that, if the state is granted an injunction, new applicants will be blocked from receiving DACA protections, but current beneficiaries will maintain their status.

The program has already stopped receiving new applicants. Thomas A. Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), though, said Paxton’s pursuit of an injunction would affect all DACA beneficiaries.

“In its lawsuit, Texas challenges the DACA program in its entirety, including seeking to stop any renewals of DACA for current recipients,” said Saenz in a statement.

MALDEF is representing 22 DACA recipients who filed a motion to intervene in the Texas case.

If any of the cases for or against DACA is successfully appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, the outcome could depend on whether Republicans have confirmed Trump nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

DACA, however, is hardly the only immigration issue that will receive attention over the rest of 2018.

Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsTrump distances himself from Rosenstein by saying Sessions hired him Gowdy: Declassified documents unlikely to change anyone's mind on Russia investigation Pompeo on Rosenstein bombshell: Maybe you just ought to find something else to do if you can't be on the team MORE’s handling of immigration courts, which are a division of the Department of Justice, will continue to make headlines. Sessions is asking immigration judges to handle more cases in less time, and some judges are fighting back, saying the orders undermine their judicial independence.

Immigration courts are crucial in the asylum process and in the Trump administration’s enactment of its “zero tolerance” policy, which earlier this year led to the separation of at least 2,700 children from their parents at the southern border.

Any further moves to change the way immigration courts operate will likely bring up family separations, a politically sensitive issue that the Trump administration hopes to leave in the past.

Meanwhile, administration officials will likely move ahead with regulatory changes to existing immigration programs.

United States Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Francis Cissna gave a wide-ranging interview earlier this month laying out the changes his agency hopes to make to existing visa programs.

“Things that may look difficult or controversial because such-and-such benefit is being looked at with greater scrutiny or the other, it’s not — we’re not doing that for any other reason than to comport the actions of our agency with the law. That’s what it comes down to,” said Cissna.

And in November, Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Sudan will lapse, potentially leaving 450 Sudanese nationals no choice but to return to their country.

TPS is a program that allows nationals of a country that’s gone through natural or man-made disasters to live and work in the United States until their country recovers.

Republican and Democratic administrations have renewed TPS with little controversy, particularly for Latin American countries, for about two decades.

The Trump administration has taken a different interpretation of TPS, focusing on its temporary nature, and has announced its end for many countries currently in the program.

After Sudan’s lapse in November, TPS for about 2,500 Nicaraguans will end in January. If TPS holders don’t receive a different status, nearly 300,000 people from 10 countries will lose their legal immigration stauts  by 2020.

Democrats are vowing to fight those plans.

“Some of these people, we know, are facing some horrible circumstances back in their home countries,” said Durbin. 

“There was a revelation last week about memos within the administration trying to downplay the danger of returning some of these people. I’m afraid, unless the administration relents, that they’ll be sent back into very dangerous circumstances,” he added.