In next round of budget talks, 'dreamers' are set to dominate

Washington Post

With a potential government shutdown less than two weeks away, congressional leaders and the White House will meet this week to discuss ways to end an impasse over the legal status of young immigrants, which has become a primary obstacle to a spending deal.

Over the weekend, President Donald Trump reiterated his campaign pledge to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, warning that any plan to address the fate of immigrant "dreamers" won't happen without it. Democrats once again balked at such demands, but the party is split over whether to force a government shutdown to get its way.

A bipartisan meeting on immigration policy at the White House on Tuesday is designed to bring the sides together. If Trump and lawmakers can strike an immigration deal, negotiators on both sides think that other issues, including how to fund a children's health insurance program and a roughly $80 billion package to pay for disaster relief, could be resolved.

Ahead of the meeting, the Trump administration released to lawmakers a request to pay $18 billion over 10 years for a mix of walls, fencing and other security technology. GOP lawmakers have said they were waiting for the plan to know the parameters of talks with Democrats.

"Instead of the saber-rattling, let's get in a room and figure out reasonable, sound policy for securing the border, helping [dreamers] ... and solving this problem for the first time in two decades," Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., a lead GOP immigration negotiator, told Fox News on Sunday.

But Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who voted against the temporary spending plan in December, characterized the looming shutdown as an opportunity for Democrats ahead of the 2018 midterm elections.

"I believe that if we can increase voter turnout by 5 percent from 2014, Democrats will regain the House and Senate. But you cannot do that unless ordinary people believe you are fighting for them," Sanders said in an interview. "If it's more tax breaks for billionaires and huge increases in military spending, you have a lot of working people and young people who will say: 'It doesn't make a difference. Why should I be involved?'"

Republicans control Congress but Democrats hold significant leverage over spending talks. In the House, hard-liners on the right have regularly voted against recent spending bills, requiring GOP leaders to rely on at least some Democratic votes to pass. In the Senate, spending bills require at least 60 votes to avoid procedural hurdles, and Republicans hold only 51 seats.

Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, a lead Democratic negotiator on immigration, called Trump's detailed request "outrageous" and said he would continue working instead with Republicans "who understand what is at stake" in hopes of striking a bipartisan deal.

Progressives such as Rep. Adriano Espaillat, D-N.Y., whose Harlem-area district is home to more than 2,000 constituents protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA, said he will continue voting against GOP spending plans that don't include protections. Over the holiday recess, he said DACA "was the issue I heard about the most when I'm walking in my district."

"Every time it's delayed, the movement just gets stronger, the outcry gets louder," he added.

Progressive groups are planning to apply fresh pressure on Democrats who voted to temporarily extend government funding in December without addressing DACA — a mix of moderates facing re-election this year in states Trump won in 2016 and others from states with sizable populations of federal government workers.

"We are laser-focused on January 19 as a do-or-die moment," said Greisa Martinez, advocacy director for United We Dream, an immigrant advocacy group organizing protests on Capitol Hill against Republicans and Democrats who have voted for previous GOP spending bills.

Although the situation facing dreamers is "a crisis that was created by Donald Trump," Martinez said Democrats "are not without power," especially now that Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala., has joined the caucus. "They have a closer margin now, and we expect them to meet their public and private commitment to us that they'll use every leverage they have."

Indivisible, the progressive grassroots network of citizen groups, said it will focus its efforts on six Democratic senators from left-leaning states — Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall of New Mexico and Tim Kaine and Mark Warner of Virginia. Kaine, Stabenow and Udall face re-election this year.

"Democrats have done a poor job of playing hardball," said Angel Padilla, the group's policy director. "They said for three months they would use their leverage in December to get this done, and that didn't happen. In order to have leverage, the other side has to believe you'll use that leverage, and I don't think that [Republicans] think that [Democrats] will use that leverage."

Spokesmen for the senators said the lawmakers support dreamers but had various reasons for backing the last spending bill.

Udall said a government shutdown "would be a disaster for New Mexico" and the 45,000 residents who work for the federal agencies and research labs in his state.

A spokeswoman for Kaine, whose state is home to hundreds of thousands of federal employees, said he will keep pushing for a solution for dreamers and "he'll evaluate a deal once he's seen it."

Despite Trump's renewed calls for a border wall, Republicans remain frayed over how to move forward. Some moderates are willing to either pass a bill giving dreamers a path to citizenship or craft a deal with Democrats that would include some border security measures. But the bulk of the conservative rank-and-file want more in exchange for accepting an immigration policy that much of the Republican base opposes.

As the fulcrum of the immigration talks has shifted decisively toward the Senate, lawmakers on the hard right are pressuring House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., to be more assertive. They are wary that House members will get "jammed" with a Senate bill that they will have no choice but to pass mainly with Democratic votes.

Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, said it was essential that House Republicans pass a stand-alone immigration bill that promotes conservative priorities in line with Trump's agenda.

"If the only thing you do is wait for something the Senate can pass, then what we might as well do is have the House recess for the next nine months," he said. Allowing Democrats to dictate immigration policy at a time of Republican control of Congress and the White House is "distasteful and certainly not in keeping with what we promised the American people."

Amid a slate of partisan and bipartisan proposals, another conservative immigration plan may emerge in the coming days. According to a lawmaker and a GOP aide familiar with the plans, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., is expected to unveil a bill as soon as this week that would address DACA in exchange for a raft of conservative priorities on immigration.

Goodlatte's plan would grant legal status to DACA recipients, provide funding for a border wall, end a visa lottery program criticized by Trump, take action against "sanctuary cities" that do not cooperate with federal immigration enforcement and roll back rules allowing legal immigrants to sponsor the entry of certain family members. But House Republican leaders do not think the bill will be able to garner enough support to pass by the deadline.

A spokeswoman for Goodlatte declined to comment.

Bipartisan immigration talks in the House have produced little visible progress. A bipartisan group of moderates, the Problem Solvers Caucus, created an immigration task force that formed the outlines of a deal, said Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., one of the participants, but the larger caucus wouldn't sign on.

"We're not there right now, and we're going to start working on it again when we come back," Coffman said.

AshLee Strong, a Ryan spokeswoman, said he was continuing to speak with lawmakers in both chambers but isn't committed to permitting a vote on a bill granting dreamers a path to citizenship.

Beyond DACA, Republicans and Democrats say they're making progress over how much money should go to the military vs. domestic programs, something that has to be settled to raise automatic spending caps.

The White House wants to set discretionary defense spending levels at about $603 billion, which would exceed current automatic spending caps by $54 billion. Republicans think non-defense levels should see less of an increase, closer to $35 billion. But Democrats are insisting on "parity," arguing in recent weeks that non-defense spending bolsters programs to fight opioid addiction and terrorism and protect the southern border.

Sanders said he would urge Congress to reject any deal that increases military spending by more than what is spent on domestic programs. "If we're going to spend a dollar more in the military, we must spend a dollar more on the enormously important issues facing working families. All of these issues are in crisis mode, and they have to be dealt with right now."

The Washington Post's Jeff Stein contributed to this report. 

Copyright © 2018, The Virginia Gazette
34°