Key Trump administration officials are set to huddle with the top two congressional leaders from each party on Wednesday to hammer out a spending deal that keeps the government open past Jan. 19, when the temporary government funding Congress passed just before Christmas will run dry.
Their conversation could also turn to immigration, as lawmakers face a March deadline to legislate protections for undocumented immigrants brought into the country illegally as children, known as “Dreamers,” before the Obama-era program currently protecting them winds down on Trump’s orders.
Some Democrats have pushed to codify the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in the year-end spending bill, thus staving off a second legislative battle that could involve a fight over funding for the border wall and an end to a controversial visa lottery system.
But GOP lawmakers and the White House have insisted that DACA protections and other immigration policies have no place in a spending bill, which they hope to craft within the next two weeks to avoid another shutdown battle.
Republican congressional leaders have said they want to reach a two-year deal that lifts budget caps for defense spending. Democrats, however, have called for parity between changes to defense and nondefense spending levels.
A senior GOP aide told the Washington Examiner that the focus of the meeting would continue to be reaching a deal on spending caps, despite the “extraneous matters Democrats are pushing” ahead of the discussion.
Lawmakers also face decision points on other spending priorities, such as the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which Congress funded temporarily at the end of the year. Stopgap CHIP funding will expire in March.
White House legislative affairs director Marc Short and budget director Mick Mulvaney will travel to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to meet with the so-called “big four” congressional leaders: House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.; House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.; Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.; and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. President Trump is not expected to attend, although he is slated to meet with Ryan and McConnell separately at Camp David over the weekend.
Pelosi said Tuesday that she hopes to avoid a “catastrophic shutdown” by sitting down with Trump administration officials this week and reiterated Democratic support for lifting nondefense budget caps.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Tuesday that the meetings between administration officials and congressional leaders were intended “to talk about the strategy of the best way to accomplish maximum success” in key policy areas. Sanders said a long-term spending bill is “the big priority in the immediate term.”
But DACA’s fast-approaching expiration date could complicate the budget negotiations.
Democrats have fervently pushed for a bill that would codify DACA, which shields an estimated 800,000 illegal immigrants from deportation. However, the White House has drawn a series of red lines around the program, demanding that such legislation contain both funding for a Southwest border wall and steps to end lax immigration programs and insisting the conversation happen independently of budget talks.
“I wouldn’t do a DACA plan without a wall, because we need it,” Trump told the New York Times last week, echoing comments he made prior to a planned meeting with Pelosi and Schumer last month.
Some conservative immigration voices remain skeptical, however, that Trump would actually kill legislation if it excluded wall funding, especially if Democrats agreed to end the controversial Diversity Visa Immigrant Program and implement a merit-based immigration system in exchange for amnesty of some form.
“If the Democrats give [Trump] wall funding, he probably will be okay with skipping the rest of his demands,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that has largely supported the current administration’s immigration agenda. “But their craze about the wall – their opposition to it because of its association with Trump – is preventing them from getting a better deal from their own perspective.”
“There would be people storming Nancy Pelosi’s office and picketing Schumer’s house if they went for a deal that funded the border wall,” Krikorian said.
Democratic leaders have insisted that members of their conference will oppose a bipartisan budget deal if no legislative fix for young undocumented immigrants emerges. Meanwhile, McConnell has promised to allow a vote on immigration legislation this month, if lawmakers and the White House can draft a bill.
However, virtually no progress has been made on the House side to devise a bill that is capable of picking up momentum on both sides of the aisle.
“Republicans are meeting with the president later this week at Camp David, which would be the appropriate forum to discuss these types of things,” a senior GOP aide told the Washington Examiner. “I think what we really need is a process put in place – like a working group of sorts – to make progress on the DACA issue.”
Immigration hawks have already signaled that they will oppose a legislative solution that fails to include substantial border security and enforcement improvements. Republican Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, chairman of the 36-member House Freedom Caucus, said Tuesday the onus is on Democrats to accept a deal that tackles DACA but also addresses “the national security issue of having a secure border and secure country.”
If Congress fails to strike a deal by early March, Trump has previously said he may be open to extending DACA protections – something that could weaken his leverage. On the flipside, doing nothing could potentially bolster Democrats’ messaging ahead of the midterm elections, according to Krikorian.
“If no legislation passes and DACA permits start expiring in March, the question is whether Democrats think it’s a winning issue for them in November. If they do, they might just let the permits expire and rally voters that way,” he said. “But that would suggest that Democrats really wouldn’t mind using Dreamers as political props.”