By RACHAEL BADE and HEATHER CAYGLE
Party leaders on both sides of the aisle fear they’ll be blamed for budget brinkmanship — but they’re equally afraid of enraging their grass roots.
Concern is growing in both parties that a clash over the fate of Dreamers will trigger a government shutdown this December.
House conservatives have warned Speaker Paul Ryan against lumping a fix for undocumented immigrants who came to the country as minors into a year-end spending deal. They want him to keep the two issues separate and delay immigration negotiations into 2018 to increase their leverage — which both Ryan and the White House consider reasonable.
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But many liberal Democrats have already vowed to withhold votes from the spending bill should it not address Dreamers, putting Democratic leaders Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California and Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York in an awkward spot if they don’t go along.
Democrats know Republicans need their votes to fund the government past the current Dec. 8 deadline, and many want Pelosi and Schumer to stand firm against the must-pass bill until leaders save the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
“We want a clean DREAM Act,” said Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.), referring to legislation that provides a pathway to citizenship for the young adults. “That is what it’s going to take for me and others to sign on.”
Ryan (R-Wis.), Pelosi, Schumerand Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) are already discussing a short-term government-funding extension to buy themselves more time to negotiate, likely culminating in a Christmastime collision.
Ryan told reporters in early November that there was no need to address DACA by year’s end because the program expires in March under President Donald Trump’s orders.
Pelosi vowed at a news conference earlier this month, “We will not leave here without the DREAM Act passing, with a DACA fix,” adding: “We're not kicking the can down to March.”
But privately, both sides are worried — fearful of either enraging the party’s base or getting punished at the polls for a government shutdown.
Some senior GOP sources believe they may have to address DACA before 2018 begins; if the government closes even in part because of Democrats, Republicans fear they’ll get the blame from voters since they control Washington.
GOP leadership is also getting an earful from centrist Republicans who want to strike a deal now. “I want to see it done by the end of the year,” said Florida Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a moderate Republican of Cuban descent who’s trying to bring both sides together. “We don’t want this to spill into next year. No. 1, that means more drama here. It means a lot of worried young people and a lot of anxiety.”
The right is trying to ensure Ryan and McConnell don’t make any immigration deals. They've taken their case to the White House and convinced Trump, at least momentarily, that government funding and DACA should be negotiated separately.
“We do not want DACA on the [spending] bill," said House Freedom Caucus leader Jim Jordan (R-Ohio).
Democratic leaders are also worried about the potential budget brinkmanship. Pelosi and other top Democrats fear voters would blame them for a government shutdown, which could backfire in the 2018 midterm elections. Democratic leaders have been encouraging their members to hold off on nuclear rhetoric for now.
That’s led some Democrats to walk a linguistic tightrope. More than two dozen members of the congressional Hispanic and Progressive caucuses signed onto an op-ed vowing to vote against a December funding bill if DACA wasn’t addressed by then. But even those lawmakers have furiously pushed back against any notion that they’re advocating for a government shutdown if they don’t get their way. They say the onus is and always has been on Republicans, who control the majority in both chambers and the White House.
Internally, Pelosi faces her own pressure to deliver a DACA deal that satisfies her caucus. Some Congressional Hispanic Caucus members are still smarting that Pelosi and Schumer didn’t push harder to address Dreamers in a short-term spending deal they cut with Trump in September.
That fiscal deal came just after Trump announced his decision to wind down the DACA program. CHC members and immigration activists thought then — when public attention to the Dreamers’ ordeal was at its peak — was the best time to pressure congressional Republicans into action.
Pelosi also enraged some members of the CHC by agreeing to a separate, though now seemingly derailed, deal with Trump to address DACA in exchange for beefed-up border protections. Several Hispanic lawmakers were angered that they were not first consulted and instead found out about the agreement via news alerts on their phones while they were at the CHC's annual gala, blasting Trump for his anti-immigration actions.
Tensions between Democratic leaders and the CHC have since cooled off. But some members still say they feel that leadership has bungled its DACA strategy.
“We should’ve kept the focus on the fact that Trump rescinded the DACA program, and we should’ve made him pay the price for it,” Rep. Filemon Vela (D-Texas) said in an interview.
Ryan, meanwhile, is being pulled in different directions by his fractured conference.
Moderate Republicans, who rarely go against GOP leaders, recently held a news conference calling for Ryan to act on DACA by the end of 2017. Centrists in the Tuesday Group huddled last week with the New Democrat Coalition and agreed to find a bipartisan solution.
At the same time, the Problem Solvers Caucus, another bipartisan group of moderates, is getting ready to drop its own bill to extend DACA in exchange for heightened border security. And one moderate Republican source even suggested centrists could take a harder line against their own leaders if Ryan doesn’t embrace a compromise soon.
But listening to moderates could mean the beginning of the end of Ryan’s speakership. Immigration has long been a toxic issue for Republicans. And conservatives made Ryan promise, when he became speaker, that he would never put an immigration bill on the floor that doesn’t have a majority of the majority.
The kind of solution being advocated by Democrats or even centrist Republicans could incite a riot in the GOP ranks. In exchange for a DACA fix, conservatives want to boost border security, curb “chain migration” and force companies to set up e-verification systems to check that their workers are in the United States legally — proposals most Democrats would oppose.
Trump’s endorsement of a DACA-spending deal would likely change things, providing Ryan and other Republicans with cover. So far, however, Trump has sided with conservatives, who have lobbied him privately to negotiate the two matters separately.