By Leandra Bernstein, Sinclair Broadcast Group
WASHINGTON — Congress has until Thursday at midnight to pass a budget resolution or risk shutting down the federal government for the second time this year. So far, an immigration deal, the issue that was at the center of the January shutdown, has been largely absent from the debate over a short-term funding bill.
In the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell repeated his promise to schedule an open floor debate on immigration next week, as long as Democrats can agree to fund the government by the Thursday deadline, a promise that has largely defused the possibility of another shutdown this week.
As both the immigration and budget deadlines approach, neither the House the Senate or the White House have agreed on a concrete pathway forward. Different groups in the House and Senate have broken off around different proposals, none of which have earned the endorsement of President Donald Trump, who continues to stand by his "four pillars" immigration proposal outlined in the State of the Union.
McConnell underscored the uncertainty of an immigration deal. "The Senate's going to work its will," he told reporters on Tuesday, explaining that the Senate's immigration bill will take shape next week based on the floor debate. "Whoever gets to 60 votes wins," McConnell added. "It will be an opportunity for a thousand flowers to bloom."
Senate Democrats are now putting their trust in McConnell to stick to his promise and hold an open debate and not skew the process in favor of one party or one particular proposal.
However, the final result will still have to be acceptable to the White House, which has been clear and unwavering in its demands. Trump has repeatedly said that any bill he signs must include his "four pillars." The first pillar is protecting dreamers, the immigrants brought to the country illegally as children and shielded from deportation under the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. In addition, the president wants additional funding for border security, including a border wall, as well as an end to the diversity visa lottery and limiting chain migration to spouses and minor children.
The House Republican leadership issued a similar red line. Speaker Paul Ryan told reporters that he would not accept an immigration bill from the Senate that does not have support from the White House.
"We have been very clear about this, we will take a bill that the president supports," Ryan said. "President Trump made a very serious and sincere offer of goodwill with the reforms that he sent to the Hill. That is what we should be working off of."
As it stands, the president's four-pillar immigration proposal does not appear to have the 218 votes needed to pass the House, with opposition coming from the left and the right. Congressman Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the House Democratic Whip, described the president's proposal as "a nonstarter" for Democrats. He argued that the legal immigration reforms should be taken up as part of a future debate on comprehensive immigration reform.
On the right, some of the president's staunchest allies have broken with him after he offered protections for approximately 1.8 million immigrants who are either DACA recipients or DACA-eligible, plus a pathway to citizenship.
"The president's proposed more than I can vote for," Rep. Louis Gohmert of Texas told Sinclair Broadcast Group. "But it doesn't matter because the Democrats won't even agree with that."
In an attempt to bridge the divide and reach a bipartisan, bicameral agreement, the ranking members of both parties and both chambers met behind closed doors on Tuesday evening at the Capitol. Durbin, Hoyer and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy attended the meeting along with White House chief of staff John Kelly and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.
"My expectation is it will be the first meeting we accomplish something," Durbin said, still hopeful that all sides can advance a solution.
The clock is ticking. It has already been almost six months since Trump announced he would end DACA, giving Congress a hard March 5 deadline to address the fate of more than 700,000 dreamers.
Congress now has 6 months to legalize DACA (something the Obama Administration was unable to do). If they can't, I will revisit this issue!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 6, 2017
With less than four weeks to go until DACA expires, the White House signaled it was going to hold Congress to the original deadline.
White House chief of staff John Kelly told reporters on Tuesday, "I doubt very much" the president would extend the DACA program beyond the deadline. He added that he was “not so sure this president has the authority to extend it."
In an interview with Sinclair Broadcast Group last week, Kelly explained the president's decision to end DACA was based on the Justice Department opinion that the original 2012 program is unconstitutional. "DACA, as it's been evaluated by the Justice Department ... it was an overreach," Kelly said. "The Justice Department recommended to the president, this is not based on law, it's gonna go away. So it did go away."
A refusal to extend the proposal means additional pressure on Congress to reach a deal that somehow threads the needle of Republican, Democratic and White House demands.
House Democrats are hoping for a process that is similar to the Senate's open debate, where the full Congress will be able to consider all the immigration proposals, and whichever has the most votes gets final consideration. Hoyer believes a bill proposed by Will Hurd, R-Texas and Pete Aguilar, D-Calif. will earn the greatest bipartisan support. Some Republicans are convinced their best bet is a much more conservative bill sponsored by Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia.
Other lawmakers are preparing a backup plan in the event a permanent fix can't be found. Sen. Lindsey Graham told reports that he will be drafting a short-term fix for DACA that would extend the program for one or two years.
The proposal was met with immediate scorn from Democratic leaders. "That is no fix as far as I am concerned. It just prolongs the agony and delays the inevitable resolution of this issue," Durbin said.
Hoyer denounced the temporary fix as "irresponsible" and another example of Congress "kicking the can down the road" rather than solving pressing issues. "We ought to come to grips on making a decision," he added.
With the Thursday budget deadline approaching, Democratic leaders in the Senate would not say whether they were willing to risk another government shutdown for the sake of the dreamers. As the Senate considers the short-term spending bill, the fifth one this year, Democrats have said there are issues other than immigration that they are ready to go to the mat for, specifically equal spending increases for the defense and non-defense budget.
One Republican congressman expects Senate Democrats learned from the budget fight that shutting down the government is not a winning strategy.
"I think the Democrats found they made a huge mistake in using DACA to shut the government down," Rep. Lou Barletta of Pennsylvania told Sinclair Broadcast Group. "The proof is how quickly they came back and reopened the government. They realized it was a big mistake. I don't think they'll do it again."
There are other pressure points Democrats may consider in order to guarantee passage of an immigration bill, including an upcoming vote to raise the debt ceiling.
The Congressional Budget Office issued a statement late last month saying that if the debt ceiling is not raised the United States will be unable to borrow money "and the Treasury will most likely run out of cash in the first half of March 2018."
Democrats asked for comment did not say whether or not they would use the debt ceiling and risk of a government default as leverage in the immigration debate.