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GOP Leaders Under the Gun to Avert Partial Shutdown

As hope for DACA deal shrivels, Republicans stare down Friday deadline

The fate of the DACA program is one of many issues affecting the shutdown talks. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
The fate of the DACA program is one of many issues affecting the shutdown talks. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Updated 6:05 p.m. | Congress began the week with growing uncertainty about the effort to pass another temporary spending bill, even as the prospect of a partial government shutdown loomed.

No budget talks were held over the long weekend after the breakdown in negotiations last week, people familiar with them said. Talks had stalled over the fate of roughly 690,000 “Dreamers” — young adults brought to the United States illegally as children who are currently shielded from deportation by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

Time will run out at midnight on Friday, when government funding expires. Leaders from both parties were awaiting the results of a House Republican Conference meeting scheduled for Tuesday night to assess the prospects for passing a temporary spending bill with only Republican support.

The short-term stopgap would most likely extend current spending levels until Feb. 16, giving lawmakers a month to reach a deal to raise discretionary spending caps and potentially write a fiscal 2018 omnibus bill ahead of the next congressional recess.

House Republican leaders can afford to lose just 22 GOP votes if all Democrats in the chamber vote against the stopgap.

In the Senate, the margin is even closer. The GOP has a 51-49 edge and will need Democrats to pass any kind of legislation before government funding runs out.

Watch: Clock’s Ticking on Deal to Dodge a Government Shutdown

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President Donald Trump signed the previous continuing resolution into law on Dec. 22, after it passed the House with 17 GOP defections — not enough to require help from the Democrats, though 14 of them backed it as well. Republican leaders went on to win support from 17 Senate Democrats, with just two GOP “nay” votes.

“There’s too much at stake for Republicans and Democrats not to come together,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the floor Tuesday.

“Look, I’m certainly not going to try to predict the future,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Tuesday. “But we definitely want to get a deal done on the budget, and we want a clean budget deal. And I think a number of prominent Democrats that have come out and said that they don’t feel like attaching DACA to the budget is a good idea, and so hopefully we’ll stick to that and get something done.”

On defense

An added complication is that House GOP defense hawks are not yet sold on the idea of another stopgap. While only three of the 34 House Armed Services Republicans voted against the last CR, more are threatening to do so this time. They argue that the Pentagon cannot get by on stopgap funding, particularly without assurances of large full-year budget increases.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday, House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry was noncommittal about his support for yet another CR.

“Personally, I’d do just about anything to fix this problem, including vote for things that I might not support otherwise, but I am increasingly disturbed that support for our military is being tied to some other issue, some other agenda,” the Texas Republican said.

GOP leaders have discussed adding sweeteners to the temporary spending bill, such as a delay or repeal of certain taxes created by the 2010 health care law. Those could include the so-called Cadillac tax — an excise tax on high-cost health plans — along with the medical device tax and health insurance tax, according to people familiar with their thinking.

A long-term reauthorization of the Children’s Health Insurance Program, now projected to have no net cost to the federal government or even to generate savings, is also in the mix, though final decisions haven’t yet been made on whether to attach CHIP to the stopgap this week or reserve it for the broader follow-on budget bill, sources said.

Digging in on Dreamers

After a sense of optimism last Wednesday that Republican and Democratic leaders were close to an agreement on the spending caps, the atmosphere in the talks deteriorated over the issue of Dreamers.

Democrats are demanding that a path to legalization or citizenship for the immigrants be part of a caps deal or even a temporary spending bill. And there was a feeling last week that leaders were close to an agreement on DACA, which could have paved the way to progress on other elements of a budget deal.

That changed when Trump was accused of making derogatory comments about Haiti, El Salvador and African nations during a meeting with lawmakers, and when he rejected a bipartisan immigration proposal offered by Democratic Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois and Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

McConnell said a deal on spending should not be held “hostage” to a DACA deal. With a judge issuing a nationwide injunction against ending the protection program this month, “it is clear that Congress has at least until March, at a minimum, to reach a compromise” on immigration legislation, he said.

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn told reporters Tuesday afternoon that he doubted an agreement on DACA and other immigration matters would get done this week and added he did not anticipate a government shutdown over the status of the DACA recipients.

“I can’t imagine the 2018 Democrats would want to vote to shut down the government over that, especially when we’re negotiating in good faith,” Cornyn said.

Getting ready to blame

While DACA is a big sticking point, negotiators have also not yet reached an agreement on how much to raise the spending caps in fiscal 2018 and 2019, how much of the increased spending to offset, the specifics of reauthorizing CHIP and what other elements will be in the package, such as funding to counter opioid abuse, aid for veterans and support for multiemployer pension plans, according to members of both parties briefed on the talks.

Republicans aren’t the only ones to resort to “hostage” metaphors as pressure mounts.

“We’re not going to be held hostage to do things that we think are contrary to the best interest of the American people,” House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland said of his party Tuesday.

If Republicans fail to put up the needed votes for a CR and all Democrats vote against it, Hoyer said they’d be able to argue “pretty persuasively” that they’re not to blame for a shutdown.

“We don’t have the majority; they have the majority,” he said.

While it is not impossible that a comprehensive deal could be reached before government funding expires, it appears more likely that, at best, a conceptual agreement could be reached in time to get Democrats’ support for a CR.

Sizing up caps

Agreement over a caps deal remains hung up over Democrats’ demands to raise the nondefense cap by the same dollar amount as the defense cap. Various proposals have been discussed, including a GOP offer from late last year to raise the defense cap by $54 billion both in 2018 and 2019 and the nondefense cap by $37 billion each year. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California has repeatedly rejected that offer. Proposals to increase defense spending have ranged from $54 billion up to $80 billion.

The total spending cap increase could amount to some $250 billion over two years, not counting exempt Overseas Contingency Operations funds or emergency assistance to hurricane and wildfire-stricken states and territories.

The leaders’ staff are negotiating over how much of the increase in discretionary spending to offset and how. Key offsets under discussion include a three-year extension of the mandatory spending sequester through 2028, auction of spectrum, sales from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and other changes in mandatory spending programs.

The offsets under discussion would not fully offset the increase in caps, and some of them would show savings in budget authority but not outlays.

Kellie Mejdrich, Lindsey McPherson, David Lerman, Niels Lesniewski and Patrick Kelley contributed to this report.

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