The fight over “Dreamers” is heating up as the legislative calendar winds down, setting the stage for a year-end clash that’s heightening the odds of a government shutdown.
Lawmakers headed into the long Thanksgiving recess in stark disagreement over how, and when, to provide legal cover for undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children — legislation both parties say they want after President Trump rescinded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in September.
Behind Trump, GOP leaders are opposed to attaching any DACA provisions to legislation extending government funding, which expires Dec. 8. But Democratic leaders, pressured by their activist base and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, are insisting that the DACA protections be finalized before year’s end. Many Democrats are threatening to withhold support for an omnibus spending bill if the immigration language isn’t included.
With just 12 legislative days left on the calendar — and the Republicans laser-focused on enacting a tax overhaul before Christmas — GOP leaders have some tough decisions ahead. And the question of timing on DACA is becoming every bit as sticky as the substance of the bill.
Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has repeatedly noted that Trump, in dismantling the Obama-era program, gave Congress until March 5 to come up with a legislative fix. With that in mind, the Speaker has suggested Republicans would be fine addressing the issue early next year. “I don't think we should put artificial deadlines in front of the one we already have,” Ryan told reporters this month.
But a number of Republicans, moderates and conservatives alike, want to move more quickly.
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), one of 10 Republicans Ryan appointed to a task force charged with crafting a DACA fix, said the threat to DACA-eligible residents is growing by the day, particularly for those who are falling out of the program without the option to re-enroll.
“There’s a lot of other things I want to do dealing with that subject matter, but the urgency is dealing with these DACA individuals whose lives are about to be just destroyed if we don’t do something soon,” Diaz-Balart said. “That deadline is the legal deadline for when [DACA] expires, but the consequences have started happening already.”
Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas), another member of the Republicans’ DACA task force, said a vote this year “would be the ideal scenario.” And Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), chairman of the Rules Committee, said he also favors action next month.
“We’ve got to get it done because we said we would,” Session said. “I’ve never been one to wait.”
If the Democrats have any say — and they likely will — Ryan and the Republicans may not have a choice.
Members of the Hispanic Caucus were furious when Democratic leaders cut a temporary budget deal with Trump in September that excluded the DACA protections. They’ve vowed to oppose any year-end spending bill unless it includes that language — or unless GOP leaders find another legislative vehicle to move in December. And House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has embraced their message unswervingly.
“Kicking the can to next year is just to say, ‘We’re not doing this.’ That’s how we see that,” Pelosi said Thursday. “If [Ryan] wants to take it up as a free-standing [bill], or whatever vehicle is leaving the station, we’ll make some judgments as we go along.”
Although they’re the minority in both chambers, the Democrats will have leverage in December’s spending fight, given the Senate filibuster and the historic struggle of House Republicans to find 218 Republican votes to pass budget bills on their own.
Republicans could try to move a DACA fix through the House on a partisan vote, but they’d still need Democratic support in the Senate to avoid the filibuster.
“Anything we’re going to do is going to have to be bipartisan,” Diaz-Balart said.
Kicking DACA to 2018 could complicate passage for another reason: if would force Republicans to vote on a divisive issue in an election year.
“If they think this is going to get easier for them as we get closer to the midterms, they’re fooling themselves,” Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.) said.
The contours of a DACA deal seemed to be decided in September, just days after Trump rescinded the program, during a White House meeting between the president, Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.). The three agreed to a package that included legal protection for Dreamers, coupled with new border security measures. The Democrats insisted that the enforcement provisions must not include new border wall funding or heightened interior enforcement. They said Trump agreed to those terms.
But in the wake of that agreement, the White House released a lengthy list of demands for an immigration deal that are mostly non-starters with Democrats.
Ryan’s DACA task force, meanwhile, has yet to produce a proposal. And while McCaul said he’s optimistic the group will unite behind a package, others on the panel aren’t so sure.
“I don’t know if there’s going to be a final product or not, no, coming from that group,” said Diaz-Balart.
Given the membership of the task force — a mix of moderate immigration reformers like Diaz-Balart and conservative hardliners like Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) — Democrats are skeptical the group was ever serious about drafting a DACA fix.
“Frankly, we don't think the task force was designed to reach a compromise. There are no Democrats on that task force, all Republicans, and, very frankly, an awful lot of Republicans who have no intention of voting for DACA,” Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), the Democratic whip, said last week.
“So I don't think they are really looking for a solution. I think they're wasting time.”
The delay has encouraged other lawmakers to jump into the fray. Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), chairman of the far-right Freedom Caucus, said he’s working with moderate Republicans to find a compromise, the details of which he hopes to unveil when Congress returns to Washington.
“We’re getting real close. We should have some real progress to report, hopefully the first week back in December,” Meadows said. “I probably have been approached more on DACA, by some of our more moderate members looking for compromise, in the last 72 hours than I can remember. Based on that, I think there is a deal there to be made in some shape, form or fashion that would potentially even get bipartisan support here in the House.”
Like Ryan, Meadows said attaching a DACA fix to an omnibus spending bill “would be a problem.” And he’s also not feeling any urgency to move long before the March deadline.
“I don’t know of any other impending deadline that would make us have to move sooner than that,” he said.
Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.), another Freedom Caucus member, outlined a package this month he said would win the support of the conservative group. It couples DACA protections with new efforts to end chain migration, install a mandatory e-verity program and eliminate diversity visas. In the eyes of liberal CHC members like Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), however, the proposal is a non-starter.
Rep. Kind, a member of the New Democrats who have been meeting with the GOP’s Tuesday Group in search of a compromise, said both sides would ultimately have to give ground.
“There’s got to be some reasonable middle ground here to fix this,” he said.
“We know what the landmines are. It’s just: what’s the path forward?”