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Spending, Immigration Talks Entangled

Ahead of Jan. 19 deadline, little progress has been made on either

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer confer after the Senate policy lunches in the Capitol on Tuesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer confer after the Senate policy lunches in the Capitol on Tuesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Despite Republican leaders’ best efforts to decouple spending and immigration negotiations, the two issues have become intertwined. And with five legislative days before the Jan. 19 government funding deadline, little progress has been made.

Lawmakers have acknowledged that a fourth stopgap spending measure is needed to keep the government open while broader talks about fiscal 2018 spending and a legislative replacement for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, continue. House Republicans will huddle Thursday morning to discuss both issues.

While a government shutdown always remains a possibility amid ongoing discord, the prospect of one remains low. Neither party wants to be blamed for a shutdown, especially with midterm elections looming.

That leaves two likely scenarios:

1. Leaders remain at an impasse on spending and immigration and Republicans put up most of the votes for a continuing resolution in both chambers, with the help of a few vulnerable Senate Democrats.

2. Leaders strike a deal or, at a minimum, an agreement on principles on both issues and Democrats supply a bulk of the votes for the CR amid objections from conservatives.

Watch: Schumer, McConnell at Crossroads on DACA

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The length of the next CR has yet to be determined, with options appearing to range between mid-February and early March. Several lawmakers said they expect the CR to include a long-term reauthorization of the popular Children’s Health Insurance Program now that the Congressional Budget Office is estimating it will save money rather than cost billions after the repeal of the tax penalty for not purchasing insurance.

In the Senate, Democratic votes are needed to pass any spending bill, whether a CR or a broader omnibus. And in both chambers, any deal to raise the sequestration caps for defense and nondefense spending is expected to require bipartisan support since many fiscal conservatives are likely to object to the increased spending that could be upward of $250 billion for a two-year deal.

Because of this leverage, Democrats are insisting that DACA be addressed in conjunction with a must-pass spending bill. (The program protects from deportation undocumented immigrants brought illegally to the country as children.) Some have suggested that vehicle would be the upcoming CR, while others have said it would be legislation needed to raise the spending caps.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer on Wednesday left it open for interpretation but made clear that Democrats will use the spending negotiations to ensure a DACA deal gets done.

“Unless DACA is on a must-pass deal, a must-pass bill, in terms of a global agreement, people are rightfully skeptical that it will ever happen,” the New York Democrat said on the Senate floor. “Somehow, somewhere, someone will say, ‘I can’t do it.’”

Playing coy

Schumer’s vagueness about the “must-pass bill” appeared to be part of a broader effort by Senate Democrats to play coy regarding their position on a fourth CR.

The party is in a pickle. It’s trying to appease its liberal base, which has been pushing Democrats to take a stronger negotiating stance on DACA. And it’s trying to avoid shutting down the government, something for which they chastised Republicans during former President Barack Obama’s tenure.

House Democratic leaders are also holding their cards close to the vest.

“Whether it’s in one of the fiscal bills or not is not the issue,” House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer said. “The issue is will it get done. We would hope that it would get done prior to the passage of any of the fiscal bills so that we would have the assurance that it was done.”

While Democratic leaders left the door open to supporting the CR in the absence of a DACA deal, some members made it clear they will not.

“I certainly would not support something unless we had an agreement on DACA,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee.

Even one Republican suggested he would vote against the CR absent significant movement on DACA.

“It’s going to depend on where we are next week,” Florida Rep. Carlos Curbelo said Wednesday. “If after this meeting yesterday and some of the work that’s being done today there’s been no significant improvement or growth, then I will likely vote against the spending bill.”

Curbelo, who opposed the last CR over inaction on DACA (his first time voting against a spending bill), urged Senate Democrats to do the same.

“What I’d say to Senate Democrats — I really think they hold the key here — is unless we’ve seen major progress on DACA, meaning positive news about negotiations, they should hold strong and force action,” he said. “Regrettably, this place functions that way, where you have to force Congress to act.”

Immigration talks accelerate

The good news, Curbelo said, is that serious negotiations on DACA are now taking place at the leadership level.

“That’s what’s been missing for many months,” he said.

Immigration talks appear to be accelerating after a Tuesday meeting President Donald Trump hosted at the White House with lawmakers from both parties. During that meeting, Republicans suggested the parameters of the talks focus on DACA, border security, so-called chain migration and the visa lottery program.

The No. 2 congressional leaders — Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Hoyer — held a meeting Wednesday to continue the negotiations and left with the feeling that progress was being made.

Durbin said talks continued along the four parameters laid out Tuesday and that Jan. 19 remains his goal for reaching a DACA deal. Cornyn suggested the group was receptive to that time frame.

“We all said we want to do it as soon as we can come to an agreement,” the Texas Republican told reporters. “My guess is given the complexity of writing the language and that sort of thing, it’s probably more of an agreement by then, not necessarily floor action on the 19th.”

Cornyn and Durbin said the No. 2 talks would continue, but Durbin expressed some frustration with the negotiations since he’s already been leading talks with a bipartisan group of senators.

“I’ve been at this for four months,” the Illinois Democrat said. “They’re considering some issues which we worked through months ago.”

An agreement on DACA, even if just in topline principles, could clear the way for a deal on raising the budget caps. Democrats appear to be holding back on caps negotiations until progress is made on DACA.

Republicans have discussed a caps proposal that would raise the defense cap by $72 billion in fiscal 2018 and $80 billion in fiscal 2019, while increasing the nondefense cap by $45 billion in 2018 and $50 billion in 2019, a person with knowledge of the talks said.

Democrats, who have been insisting on equal increases in defense and nondefense spending, are not on board at this point. Still, leadership aides from both parties say it is possible to get a caps agreement before Jan. 19.

Passing a CR becomes easier if you get a budget caps agreement, McCarthy said Wednesday. That’s likely because Democrats will join Republicans in passing the stopgap.

House Democrats have withheld their votes for the past two CRs until Republicans put 218 of their own votes on the board. And in the absence of a DACA and budget caps deal, that’s expected to happen again.

While many House Republicans have griped about the need for another CR, only a handful of members who have opposed some of the previous CRs are saying outright they’d likely vote against it.

Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows said members of his conservative group have helped supply leadership with votes on the past two CRs in part because they wanted to help GOP leaders continue to have leverage needed to negotiate a good immigration deal.

The North Carolina Republican was not ready to say definitively that the Freedom Caucus would do that again, given that they haven’t discussed the matter recently and that leadership hasn’t laid out its strategy. But he added, “I don’t know that anything has fundamentally changed to suggest that we would do otherwise.”

Joe Williams, Niels Lewsniewski and Paul Krawzak contributed to this report.  

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