WASHINGTON ― For a fleeting moment on Thursday, it sounded like there might have been a major breakthrough in Congress to protect Dreamers, the young undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children.
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), one of six senators working on a Dreamer bill, told reporters that the group had agreed on a package that would renew the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) immigration program. But not long after the initial news, the White House and other Republicans rushed to deny any deal had been reached. Negotiations still have “a long ways to go,” White House legislative affairs director Marc Short said Thursday afternoon.
With only eight days until a government shutdown, lawmakers still haven’t come to an agreement even within their own parties on what to do about DACA. Democrats want a legislative solution for Dreamers to be part of any must-pass spending package, and many have said they won’t accept certain trade-offs. Meanwhile, many Republicans are just as strong-headed that they won’t budge without new immigration restrictions.
At a White House meeting on Thursday, President Donald Trump told a bipartisan group of lawmakers to keep working and rejected the proposal from the group of six that Flake is a part of, according to Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who was in the meeting and represents the more restrictionist flank of the party on immigration.
“It’s not even a fig leaf. It’s a pine needle,” Cotton told reporters. He added later, “It’s a joke of a proposal.”
During Thursday’s meeting with lawmakers, Trump reportedly slammed the idea of restoring protections for immigrants from “shithole” countries
Earlier this week, Trump told lawmakers at the White House that he wants three concessions in exchange for signing protections for Dreamers. First, he wants border security, including his signature wall. Second, he wants an end to the diversity visa lottery, which grants green cards to up to 50,000 people from countries with low immigration levels, after vetting. And finally, Trump wants to end what he calls “chain migration,” a term for allowing Americans and legal permanent residents to sponsor family for green cards beyond spouses and minor children.
The White House hasn’t yet said what it would be willing to agree to for actually helping Dreamers. Short told reporters that it would be narrower than the Dream Act ― a bill to grant legal status to a larger group of young undocumented immigrants than DACA ― but that Trump was open to eventual legal status and citizenship, depending on what he got in return.
The six-senator group’s deal addresses all of the areas the president asked for, according to a statement released on Thursday afternoon by the group, which along with Flake includes Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), and Bob Menendez (D-N.J.). They have not yet released the proposal publicly but said they “are now working to build support for that deal in Congress.”
But the proposal put forward by the group of six in the Senate remains far from what House Republicans are proposing. Lawmakers there have taken Trump’s principles and put forward a bill with even more immigration restrictions, though they say their additional measures are all part of the “border security” plank. The White House issued a statement praising the bill but singling out only its previously-stated policy principles.
Democrats immediately dismissed that House GOP bill, with progressive coalitions in Congress pushing back against Trump’s initial demands, let alone the expanded provisions in the Republican legislation.
The Congressional Tri-Caucus ― made up of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus ― has called for a “clean” bill to help Dreamers. If they don’t get help for Dreamers, they’re not going to vote for a funding bill, said Hispanic Caucus member Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.).
Democratic members have suggested they’re willing to negotiate on some issues, but there are lines they won’t cross. Eliminating the diversity visa lottery and family-based visas isn’t something Democrats could support, Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said, although he added that they might discuss changes to how to administer or lay out the programs.
Some lawmakers have floated ending the diversity visa lottery but giving those visas to people who hold temporary protected status. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, said that would amount to pitting “needy people against needy people.”
“That is taking the last crumbs out of the basket, walking into an impoverished community and throwing them on the ground,” Jackson Lee said. “That is unacceptable.”
Rep. Norma Torres (D-Calif.), another member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said if a deal includes ending the diversity visa lottery and ending family-based visa categories, she’d likely oppose it.
“We should not be talking about anything other than fixing [Dreamers’] immigration status,” she said.
If that’s the standard for Democrats on the left, and if Republicans in Congress and the White House are still insisting on items like a wall and an end, in their words, to “chain migration,” it’s difficult to see any quick agreement.
If no deal comes together over the next week, Congress must pass yet another short-term funding extension, their fourth for a fiscal year that began in October.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said Thursday he planned to put forth another “clean” continuing resolution (CR) next week, with a broader deal already looking unlikely to be finalized in a few legislative days.
But Democrats aren’t sounding all that supportive of another short-term extension, with progressives in the House signaling that delaying this fight even longer isn’t palatable to them. At the end of December, 119 Democrats voted against a CR, and that number could quickly rise next week.
Complicating this legislative discussion is the fact that Congress won’t actually be putting forth a “clean” CR. Sequestration ― the automatic spending cuts that were set in 2011 ― is set to trigger on Jan. 21 absent a deal raising spending caps. When HuffPost asked House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) whether conservatives would support raising the caps temporarily in a CR, Meadows said he’d favor suspending sequestration for only defense. “I don’t know that there is an appetite to increase caps without a better understanding of where our appropriations efforts are headed,” he said.
Former Freedom Caucus Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) also told HuffPost on Thursday afternoon that he opposed raising non-defense spending caps in a CR as well. “I do not remember the American people electing us to do that,” he said.
When pressed if he was willing to enter a shutdown over the issue, Jordan reiterated that he was fine raising the spending limits for the military, and if Democrats wouldn’t accept increasing the caps for just defense, it would be them shutting down the government and denying troops a pay raise.
Still, barring a mutiny over the caps, Republicans expect they’ll be able to pass a short-term extension in the House and then get the Senate to back the bill allowing for more time. But there’s some uncertainty that Senate Democrats would vote for another CR themselves.
“There are many reasons that I may not support a CR, including I think it’s time that we take care of our Dreamers,” Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) told HuffPost on Thursday.
When HuffPost asked if he thought Democrats were willing to enter into a shutdown over a dispute on a short-term government funding extension, Merkley said the only responsibility for a shutdown would be with Republicans and the administration. “They’re in charge,” he said.
But other Senate Democrats sounded a little more hesitant.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said he didn’t know whether Jan. 19th ― the day funding is set to expire ― was the line, or if Democrats would extend the deadline. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said it’d be “silly” to shut down the government. And Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said there was no need for a crisis.
It’s unclear, however, how much of that talk downplaying a shutdown is just spin. Democrats say it’d be on Republicans if there was a shutdown.
“The only person who’s been tweeting about a shutdown was the president of the United States,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) told HuffPost on Thursday. But he also said Democrats couldn’t keep kicking these issues “down the road forever.”