Democrats Split Over Opposing Government Funding Bill That Doesn't Protect Dreamers

Sen. Dick Durbin said “most” of his colleagues agree the bill must have Dreamer protections. But the GOP only needs a few to break away -- and some already have.
Senate Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) speaks as Senate Minority Whip Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) listens during a
Senate Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) speaks as Senate Minority Whip Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) listens during a news briefing on Sept. 19.

WASHINGTON ― Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said Tuesday that he will vote against a government spending bill this week if it doesn’t include protections for young undocumented immigrants, and that he believes “most” of his colleagues are with him.

But Democrats aren’t united on whether they are willing to risk a government shutdown over those immigrants, who are known as Dreamers. Republicans, who control the White House and both chambers of Congress, only need a few Democrats to break with Durbin in order to pass a government spending bill without Dreamer protections, and several have said they would. And Durbin wouldn’t commit to whipping — D.C.-speak for formally urging — fellow Democrats to join him in opposing a spending bill that doesn’t protect Dreamers.

“Don’t have to,” Durbin told HuffPost when asked if he’d whip against a spending bill without Dreamer protections. “Believe me. Everybody has pretty intense personal feelings about this.”

Congress has until Friday to pass a funding bill and avoid a government shutdown.

If Democrats can’t unite, Dreamers could be left without good options.

Immigration reform advocates think this week is their best shot to get legal status for nearly 700,000 Dreamers who are at risk of losing deportation protections and work permits ― or who have lost them already ― because President Donald Trump ended the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

Republicans have previously blocked immigration reform, and party leaders say they don’t want to include Dreamer protections in the must-pass spending bill. But because some House conservatives routinely oppose government funding measures and Republicans don’t have a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, Republicans will need some Democratic votes to avoid a government shutdown. Democrats have some leverage — they’re just not united on whether and when to use it.

The only way to morally pass an extension, the only way we can go home is by passing a Dream Act. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.)

The biggest question is whether it’s acceptable to let the fight over Dreamers extend to next year, particularly if Republican leaders push for a short-term government funding extension that would give Democrats another chance for leverage later. Durbin told reporters that he would vote against even a short-term spending bill and that he thinks “most [Senate Democrats] might agree with my position.”

Senate Republicans would only need some Democrats to join them to fund the government, however, and several ― including Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), according to The Washington Post ― have said they would be unwilling to risk a shutdown over Dreamers. 

There “may be” division on that point between Durbin and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Durbin said. Schumer told reporters on Tuesday that he is “very hopeful that we can get the Dream bill in the end-of-the-year CR,” referring to the continuing resolution spending deal. He did not give a yes or no answer when asked whether he’d support a package that left out Dreamer provisions.

“I’m hopeful we won’t get to that,” Schumer said during a press conference. “I’m hopeful that they will put [a] bipartisan proposal with both Dream and border security in the bill.”

Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) ― who, along with Durbin, is negotiating with several Republicans on a Dreamer bill deal ― similarly declined to give a firm answer to how he would vote if a spending bill did not include Dreamer protections.

“I hope that’s not our choice,” he told reporters. “I think we should do it before we leave.”  

Each day matters. And for that reason, we must get this done, and we must get it done before the end of this year ― no January, no February, no March. Now. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.)

Several Democratic senators have made public promises to oppose a spending bill if Dreamers are left out, or to press for action by the end of the year. Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) each tweeted this week that they would oppose a hypothetical deal without Dreamer protections. Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) appeared with Durbin and Dreamers at a press conference on Tuesday morning to pledge their support.

“If Republicans refuse to do the right thing and protect Dreamers in the upcoming long-term spending bill, then they are going to cause the government to shut down,” Gillibrand said. “Because I am not going to vote for any long-term spending bill that doesn’t protect our Dreamers, period.”

Booker said Congress “should not go home for Christmas until we solve this problem.”

“The only way to morally pass an extension, the only way we can go home is by passing a Dream Act,” Blumenthal said.

And Harris said there’s no time to waste, noting that an estimated 122 DACA recipients have lost protections every day since Trump rescinded the program.

“Each day matters,” she said. “And for that reason, we must get this done, and we must get it done before the end of this year ― no January, no February, no March. Now.”

That sense of urgency is what immigration reform advocates are trying to get across to lawmakers, with mixed success.

When Trump rescinded DACA, he said was giving Congress six months to act, because his administration allowed recipients whose protections expired up until March 5 a brief window to renew them. If Congress does nothing, nearly 1,000 DACA recipients per day will lose their work permits and be put at risk of deportation starting March 6. Immigration reform advocates have pointed out that others who missed the renewal deadline are already in peril.

Some Republicans in the House have agreed that the situation is urgent ― 34 of them wrote to House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) earlier this month to call for a solution by the end of the yearReps. Carlos Curbelo and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida have both said they would vote against a spending bill if it doesn’t include help for Dreamers.

But in the Senate, even Republicans who support a fix have said it can wait until next year. Durbin said negotiations with Senate Republicans were both “fair and slow.”

“I think they need to share our sense of urgency,” he said.

Dreamers certainly do. Greisa Martinez, advocacy and policy director for the group United We Dream, said at the press conference with senators that “there is no time to wait” because people are already at risk.

“We have three more days left,” she said. “We demand results from Democrats and Republicans, and for those that looked at us in the face and made us promises to keep them.”



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