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In Budget Talks, the ‘Dreamer’ Tail Wags the Spending Caps Dog

Immigration has been a major drag on wrapping up appropriations bills, members say

Arizona Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva says budget and immigration talks should be split up. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Arizona Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva says budget and immigration talks should be split up. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Lawmakers are hurtling toward a Feb. 8 spending deadline, when the fourth stopgap of fiscal 2018 expires, with little demonstrable progress toward agreement on new spending caps they have known would be necessary since the last two-year budget deal was reached in October 2015.

“Anybody would be very, very optimistic or unrealistic — take your choice — if they said by next Tuesday we’re going to have a global agreement. As a matter of fact, we appear to be moving in the opposite direction, which is sad,” House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer told reporters Tuesday.

Members on both sides in recent days have described immigration talks, including the fate of nearly 700,000 “Dreamers” living in the United States under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program, as a major drag on wrapping up appropriations bills that are months behind schedule.

“I’ve been told that by leadership, that we are close, but there would have to be a path forward on DACA before they think they could finalize it,” Rep. Tom Cole, chairman of the Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee, said Monday. “I don’t think you’re going to get Democratic votes until you see a path forward to a resolution, and in the Senate, you need those votes.” 

“I think they really are pretty close on the number, but I really do think it’s sort of hung up” on immigration, the Oklahoma Republican said.

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Republicans have sought to decouple the immigration issues from appropriations, arguing the impasse is holding needed troop funding hostage to an unrelated and divisive issue. Democrats, sensing they need to hitch a ride on a “must-pass” measure to have a shot at saving Dreamers from potential deportation starting in March, have been using their leverage — including a 60-vote Senate threshold and the possible need to backfill GOP conservative defections in the House — to keep DACA front and center in the talks.

“The general consensus is not to support another CR,” House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows said after the group’s weekly meeting Monday night, while cautioning that his group had not taken an official position. On Tuesday, the North Carolina Republican also signaled his caucus would not look favorably on a longer-term spending deal that includes such cap-busting figures recently floated by individuals involved in the discussions, which also gives Democrats room to make demands.

Feeling the pinch

In their states and districts, lawmakers are feeling the sting caused by a broader inability to make long-term fiscal decisions, which is also affecting a host of programs that rely on “mandatory” financing outside of annual appropriations. These include Medicare reimbursements for physical, occupational and speech-language therapy services, and money for community health centers, which rely on a mix of appropriations and mandatory funds.

Community health centers — which provide services for low-income individuals or other disadvantaged populations — in particular are becoming a flashpoint. Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, who has endorsed linking budget and immigration talks, held an event in Syracuse, New York, on Monday where he called for a funding deal, citing the negative impact on Syracuse Community Health Center and similar facilities across the Empire State and around the country.

Community health centers receive about 70 percent of their federal funds from mandatory spending that the third stopgap bill, enacted in December, would only provide through March, which Schumer said would create a “funding cliff” that would close three Syracuse facilities unless Congress acts.

The health center crunch has pushed one of the House’s most liberal Democrats to call for splitting immigration matters from the budget talks. Arizona Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva was quoted in a Tucson news broadcast Friday calling for separation of the two issues, given the damage stopgap funding was causing to the local community health center for low-income individuals.

“Let the American people see a full-throated debate on the Dreamers, on a resolution and on border security. And let’s pass a budget resolution for up to five years that comfortably takes care of health centers for the future,” Grijalva, who is co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, told KGUN9 News.

Cole said he spoke with health center representatives on Monday, lamenting that “a number of them are in hiring freezes” because the program’s authorization lapsed Oct. 1. “Yet we know if we put it on the floor, that should pass, it’s got strong bipartisan support,” Cole said.

The most recent CR, which extended current appropriations levels through Feb. 8, also included a six-year reauthorization of the Children’s Health Insurance Program for roughly 9 million children whose families earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but can’t afford private coverage. In an interview Monday, White House Legislative Affairs Director Marc Short suggested Republicans might employ a similar strategy on the next stopgap measure by putting pressure on Democrats to back it.

“I think we might have to start picking them off, one by one” with such sweeteners, Short said.

Watch: Immigration, Budget Talks on Hill Could Be Just That — A Lot of Talk

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Infrastructure on the table?

Discretionary spending caps set in late 2015 were only good through fiscal 2017. That means appropriated funds outside of emergencies or other adjustments, such as cap-exempt Overseas Contingency Operations funds for the military, will be cut $2 billion for defense and $3 billion for nondefense programs after the current CR expires without a legislative fix for fiscal 2018.

Behind-the-scenes talks have focused on increasing the defense side of the ledger by $72 billion above the fiscal 2018 statutory cap, in line with House-passed appropriations bills. That figure is also in line with a measure the House passed Tuesday as an amendment to an unrelated bill, containing an additional $1.2 billion in OCO funds requested by the Trump administration in November. This latest version of the defense spending bill does not fund military construction accounts or other defense-related programs that are included in other appropriations measures.

The Senate is not expected to pass the stand-alone defense bill, but GOP leaders are putting it on the floor in an attempt to put Democrats on record as not supporting money for the troops.

On Tuesday, Meadows reiterated prior comments that adding similar sums for nondefense appropriations, as Democrats are seeking, would not win votes among conservatives. However, he added an interesting wrinkle: devoting additional nondefense dollars to an infrastructure program.

“There are three or four options that would not grow the size of government, but understand the political reality of where we are right now on having to deal in a bipartisan way with this,” Meadows said. “One of the options is that if we are going to plus up nondefense discretionary, is maybe putting most of that toward infrastructure.”

Lindsey McPherson and John T. Bennett contributed to this report.

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