Congressional Republicans and White House officials are increasingly skeptical that they’ll reach a long-term budget agreement with Democrats in the next 11 days, accusing progressives of slow-walking a spending deal until they get what they want on immigration.
Party leaders from both sides of the aisle have been quietly working to raise stiff spending caps to avert a government shutdown before Jan. 19, when federal agency funding runs dry.
But Republicans claim Democrats won’t back a long-term spending plan until Congress agrees to shield hundreds of thousands of young undocumented immigrants from deportation. The Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which gave safe harbor to “Dreamers,” formally ends March 5 — although some immigrants have already started losing their protections.
Yet Democrats and Republicans are still far apart on border security and other immigration provisions that would be needed to clinch a deal on the matter.
That means Republicans now face the possibility of having no budget accord any time soon — unless they cave to Democrats.
“[R]ight now, the Democrats are holding that deal hostage for a DACA negotiation. … I think that’s going to make the Jan. 19 date pretty hard to hit,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) said Monday. “They’re just not agreeing to the spending caps… They’ve made a decision not to go forward on that until we get closer or get a DACA deal.”
Added a White House official: “I’m pessimistic that we’ll get a caps deal by the 19th… because I think the Dems are going to slow-walk this discussion until they get DACA in place, and I don’t think we will have a deal on DACA by Jan 19.”
The lack of progress on a spending deal raises the likelihood that Congress will once again extend current government funding temporarily — the fourth such “continuing resolution” since September. Lawmakers have been lurching from deadline to deadline with no sign that they’re actually going to reach a long-term funding agreement, and appropriators as well as defense hawks are starting to get fed up.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi in lengthy remarks to reporters on Monday tried to portray her party as conciliatory and ready to make a deal, predicting both sides will “come together” by the January funding deadline. She also argued that Congress can pass an omnibus spending package covering the rest of this fiscal year by Jan. 19, a difficult feat even if Republicans and Democrats can reach an agreement on top-line spending levels.
“It’s a decision. All you have to do is decide that you’re going to do it,” Pelosi told reporters on Monday, pointing to Republicans for the budget stalemate. "That gives us a whole week — next week — and another day when we come back after Martin Luther King Day. Hopefully, we can come to some agreement in the next week."
Indeed, Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) have been careful to avoid making public demands, putting the onus on Republicans to come up with a plan to keep the government open. Republicans, however, say they are being disingenuous.
In a floor speech Monday, for example, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley accused Democrats of being unreasonable on DACA. Democrats, he said, refuse to compromise and are demanding a path to citizenship for Dreamers — a core issue for the left — without giving Republicans something significant on security and enforcement measures in return.
“Why won’t Democratic leadership negotiate with us? Because we refuse to simply pass the Dream Act, as is, with no proportional border security and interior enforcement measures,” the Iowa Republican said. “As the Democrats see it, it’s take it or leave it, their way or the highway.” He added: “That isn’t good faith. That isn’t negotiation.”
Democrats, however, say Republicans are holding the lives of young adults hostage to advance a partisan agenda, including building a wall with Mexico and curbing legal immigration.
Trump on Tuesday morning will huddle at the White House with almost two dozen lawmakers from both parties and both chambers to try to break the logjam on DACA. Both Republicans and Democrats, however, predicted the talks would yield nothing, with both sides entrenched in partisan demands.
Pelosi said she had to talk the White House into including more than two House Democrats in the conversation — which, she argued, showed Republicans are not serious about reaching a DACA deal. She also asked for Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chairwoman Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-N.M.) to attend, but the White House said they had “space problems,” according to Pelosi.
Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin, a leader in the Senate’s ongoing bipartisan DACA talks, agreed that the White House meeting was unlikely to yield a deal but because of the opposite reason: “It’s too big a group. I don’t know why the president wanted to gather so many people together but my experience suggests that’s not the most productive setting.”
Durbin said Democrats would like to have a DACA deal as part of any spending agreement, along with a whole host of items: “There are many elements that we want to have included in any final agreement. DACA is one of them, [children’s health insurance] is one of them, community health care clinics and a number of things,” the Illinois Democrat said.
A senior Democratic source familiar with the budget talks said Democrats have not insisted on specific numbers in budget negotiations but have demanded “parity” between both defense and non-defense programs. Republicans want to give the Pentagon a major budget boost but have resisted Democrats’ demands for a dollar-for-dollar increase for Democratic priorities.
“Our Democratic colleagues say that we should only increase funding if we increase non-defense spending in the same amount. This political talking point doesn’t hold up,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) during a Monday floor speech. “By now we all know that the Budget Control Act hit defense spending much harder than it hit domestic spending.”
Democrats, however, reject the argument that defense priorities have been hit harder than non-defense programs in automatic budget cuts enacted half-decade ago. Democrats point out that while that may be true on the discretionary spending side, non-defense gets a bigger cut than defense when mandatory spending cuts are considered.
“Let no one be fooled: When the majority leader says he is not for parity, he is not for helping opioid folks to the extent they need. He is not for helping veterans to the extent they need. He is not for helping pensioners to the extent they need," Schumer said Monday. "We Democrats stand for both: helping the military and helping these folks here."
Republicans, meanwhile, say Democrats are moving the goalposts on spending in addition to making impossible demands on immigration. They believed Democrats promised Defense Secretary James Mattis that they would support a major boost for Pentagon spending but now have walked away from that.
Democrats are also insisting on disaster aid for hurricane victims and an extension on the Children’s Health Insurance Program before moving forward. And the senior Democratic source familiar with the talks insisted that even if an immigration deal is struck in the coming days, that doesn’t mean Congress is on the fast-track for a deal by Jan. 19. There are other smaller issues that still need to be ironed out, including provisions regarding veterans’ health care, opioids and pensions.
That’s why senior Republicans have already begun discussing a stop-gap funding measure to avoid a shutdown.
There’s an open question, however, about whether another short-term patch would even pass. Defense hawks like Reps. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) and Liz Cheney (R-Wy.) have sounded the alarm about the country’s ability to protect itself while operating on short-term funding patches. It’s also unclear whether Democrats would help Republicans keep the government open without an immigration deal.