A Democratic push to include legislation benefitting the Dreamers in a must-pass government spending bill is on the verge of failing.
Both parties signaled Wednesday that Congress is aiming to take up the biggest immigration reform bill in decades, including Dreamer language, as a standalone measure, not as a provision tucked inside the fiscal 2018 government spending bill as Democrats wanted.
The government spending bill must pass by Jan. 19, which is when a temporary funding measure expires.
The immigration reform measure, however, could take longer, although Republicans said they will put a bill on the floor in January if a deal is reached. A bipartisan group of lawmakers is working on an immigration reform deal and will meet next Tuesday to outline the priorities of each party.
A deal in the works would let Dreamers, who arrived in the United States illegally as children, stay in the U.S. and work pursuant to a legislative framework, instead of the program former President Barack Obama created unilaterally. In exchange, Republicans would get border security measures, including border wall funding, and other immigration provisions.
A deal could be ready in January, Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., a key negotiator, said Thursday.
Tillis said Republicans want a standalone measure to help bolster the plan as a major bipartisan agreement, rather than tacking it on as a provision to a must-pass spending measure.
Democrats, meanwhile, are carefully wording their position on the matter after angering immigration activists in December, when they refused to block a temporary government spending bill that did not legalize the Dreamers.
Schumer, in a floor speech Thursday, continued to call on the GOP to ensure the Dreamer language is finished by Jan. 19 when the spending bill must pass. The Obama-era program protecting the Dreamers expires in March, but Democrats still say publicly that they want immediate action, arguing that hundreds of Dreamers are losing legal status every week.
“This must be done now,” Schumer said of the Dreamer measure. “Leader McConnell seems to think there is no urgency. We disagree, strongly. Respectfully, but strongly. There is an urgent need.”
But Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., have backed off a direct threat to vote against the January 19 spending bill if it excludes the immigration language, in part because the standalone bipartisan deal is in the works.
“We Democrats are hopeful we can get this all done,” Schumer said Thursday when asked if he would oppose a spending bill without Dreamer language. “We’ve laid out a number of things we believe have to be in the bill and we’ve had very serious discussions with Republican leadership in those areas. Now there will be staff discussions in those areas to try to get those things done.”
Instead of insisting the immigration bill be completed by Jan. 19, Schumer called it a “goal.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he will bring an immigration bill to the floor in January if a deal is reached. He made the promise last month to Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., in order to win Flake’s vote for the GOP tax reform legislation.
Republican leaders told GOP lawmakers in a closed-door meeting Thursday that addressing the Dreamers will be a top priority in the coming weeks.
“We know that that’s looming,” Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., told the Washington Examiner after the meeting. “Dealing with the children.”
Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, who has long insisted on a standalone bill for immigration reform, said Wednesday he expects the government funding bill will “absolutely” advance separately from the immigration bill, with the cooperation of Democrats.
"I can't imagine Sen. Schumer and Ms. Pelosi want to shut down the government over this issue when there is a bipartisan commitment to work on it in good faith,” Cornyn said. “We know what the deadline looks like. We know from the commitment that Sen. McConnell made to Sen. Flake that he offered him a vote on a bill before the end of January. So we need to get to work and resolve our differences and come up with something McConnell can put on the floor."
For Democrats, the most pressing disagreement with the GOP in the fiscal 2018 funding deal is over spending levels.
McConnell wants to reach a two-year, bipartisan agreement on lifting federal spending caps and hopes to ramp up defense spending without a matching increase in domestic spending. McConnell argued that defense cuts amounted to $85 billion more than domestic reductions since 2013 under the federal spending caps, resulting in damage to military readiness.
Schumer rejected the proposal on Thursday and called for McConnell to agree to “parity,” or equal spending increases for defense and domestic spending.
“Parity is a term we use around here. I’d rather call it defending middle-class America,” Schumer said Thursday. “And just as it is important, Mr. President, to defend America from foreign enemies which our soldiers do so bravely and proudly, we have to defend America here. And I would plead with Leader McConnell, not to abandon the middle class in this bill.”
Schumer also wants changes to a disaster relief package authored by the House. Democrats believe Puerto Rico and western states impacted by fires deserve more supplemental funding than the House plan delivers.
The disaster relief package, along with reauthorization of the Children’s Health Insurance Program, or CHIP, are likely to be packaged with the spending package.