DACA state of play: Trouble in the Senate, pressure rising in the House

Story highlights

  • Government funding runs out December 8
  • Democrats believe they have the leverage

Washington (CNN)Time continues to dwindle on the window President Donald Trump gave Congress to act when he ended the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, and pressure is mounting to resolve the issue by the end of the year.

But even as Democrats and a growing handful of Republicans are pressuring leadership to cut a deal, little progress has been made on bridging the divide between the parties.
First things first: This is still a game of chicken
    We're not in a hugely different place than where we were before the Thanksgiving recess: There's a lot of motion around the edges, but not a lot of progress on a way to protect the young undocumented immigrants who arrived in the US as children that DACA protected. No one has blinked yet, and we haven't quite moved past the positioning phase.
    When is the deadline?
    Permits begin expiring in March (besides eligible recipients who didn't renew in time for the extension). Funding to run the government runs out December 8, but will likely be pushed to December 22. It remains unclear if Republicans will get their wish to push this again to January, or if Democrats will stick to their end-of-year target.
    Senate stalemate?
    Before Thanksgiving, talks in the Senate had been the most productive, with Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois working on behalf of Democrats to negotiate with a Republican working group spearheaded by Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas and Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa.
    But those conversations have now stalled, both sides say. Here's what happened, according to Durbin and a source familiar with the Republican working group. The GOP side offered a proposal to Durbin that included border security, domestic immigration enforcement measures, mandatory worker verification, legal status for DACA recipients and limits to family-based migration, per the source, who asked to remain anonymous. Durbin said the offer also included changes to asylum standards, which the Democrat said would require changing an international treaty. The source familiar with the GOP side said the offer was presented with a willingness to negotiate as long as the final product includes border security and domestic enforcement, but the talks have now "stalled" as Democrats are "refusing to negotiate."
    Durbin said it is true that negotiations have stopped -- but said it was because the other side wasn't being serious enough in its opening offer to not offer a complete nonstarter (in their eyes).
    "First they said, 'We're not going to give you the Dream Act, and here are five things we must have that go way beyond border security.' They wanted to change an international treaty standard for asylum. What?" Durbin said with dramatic effect. "So I sat down with Grassley and Cornyn twice, personally, and said, 'Let's be honest. Neither of you have ever voted for an immigration bill and probably never will. I've got to sit down and negotiate with people who might vote for this bill.' So I've had a lot of different conversations going on since, including one with Sen. Cornyn."
    Cornyn has an extensive border bill that numbers more than 400 pages, which Durbin has dismissed as too broad.
    So where are we? Durbin says he has six Republicans who would support his Dream Act, which he has cosponsored with Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and he needs six more (there are 48 Democratic votes in the Senate, which is 12 fewer than a filibuster-proof 60). He says he's working on putting together a border security offer to entice them.
    But here's the real play: Durbin says the funding bill is the only option
    "We have to put the Dream Act and whatever accompanies it on a must-pass bill and send it to the House," Durbin said. "I think that's the only way it works. And they have basically invited us to do that for a lot of internal political reasons in the House."
    Just in case that sounded easy (hint: it's not), it's not just DACA that Democrats want attached to government funding.
    "What we have decided, and I think makes sense, this has got to be one bill," Durbin said. "We have a lot of things to do. We're not going to pick favorites and run those, we're going to put them all together. And I think that's the only way to bring this to conclusion."
    And so, even though Democrats have been careful to not explicitly threaten a shutdown without DACA, their message is clear: If you want our votes for funding, we expect a DACA deal we can vote for.
    One final thing: To get Sen. Jeff Flake to back the Senate Republican tax plan during a vote Friday, the Arizona Republican said, he was promised among other things "a firm commitment from the Senate leadership and the administration to work with me on a growth-oriented legislative solution to enact fair and permanent protections for DACA recipients." It's unclear how that will shape up specifically.
    So what about in the House?
    Things are getting interesting on the House side. Between 20 and 40 Republican lawmakers are preparing to sign a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan, making clear they want a solution on DACA by the end of the year, as CNN reported here on Thursday. The lawmakers involved say the letter will not be an explicit threat to not vote for government funding without DACA, but the message is clear anyway. If two dozen lawmakers sign it, that alone is enough to deny Republicans a majority on any piece of legislation. If it's more -- and sources familiar tell me it could be in the 30s -- it's a warning sign for anyone who wants to avoid doing DACA this year.
    Ryan, for his part, remains cagey. He did initially broach the possibility of a spending deal with DACA on it in a closed-door meeting with conservative Republicans in late October, and has yet to explicitly rule it out.
    Asked again Thursday if it's a possibility, Ryan demurred and didn't rule it out, hitting Democrats for boycotting a meeting with Trump earlier this week and saying, "The deadline is March as far as I understand it, we've got other deadlines ... but if they want to get to a solution they ought to get to the table and start talking."
    One sign of momentum is the Problem Solvers Caucus. Rep. Carlos Curbelo of Florida, in becoming this week the first Republican to announce he would oppose government funding without DACA resolved, said the bipartisan group of moderates is getting close to a proposal that would marry some DACA proposals with some border security. It's unclear if that bill could gain any steam, but advocates of a compromise are heartened that at least one group seems to be making progress.
    Ok, if this all comes down to a standoff, who has leverage?
    At this point, Democrats.
    Here's House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi explaining why most think Republicans would get the blame if government shuts down: "The Republicans have the majority in the House and the Senate and the White House. The responsibility to keep government open is theirs in the majority, and it's up to them to keep government open."
    Democrats feel empowered to stick to their guns on this one: If their votes are needed to fund government, they hold the cards. Republicans can certainly try to blame them if a shutdown occurs, but Democrats are fairly confident Republicans will ultimately suffer, especially going into an election year, if the government shuts down on their watch over a sympathetic population of undocumented immigrants.
    That doesn't mean Republicans are ready to blink yet. Even if some recognize they likely will have to give in to get funding, they're still going to try to extract as much for their base as they can. Thus the positioning that continues.
    You know what might make life a lot easier for Republicans? Passing their tax bill
    It's a separate issue, but Congress-watchers know that nothing in Washington happens in isolation. Republicans are keenly aware that they have yet to score a major win on legislation for Trump, and are worried that if the first thing they send to his desk is a plan for DACA recipients, that could be a big problem for the base. And you know who really loves to talk about tax reform? Speaker Ryan.
    Oh, and by the way, Trump still remains the ultimate wild card
    Remember in September when Trump tweeted about how he didn't understand how anyone could want DACA recipients deported, calling them "accomplished young people"? Supporters of DACA are hoping to see that Trump again soon. But this week, he tweeted that Democrats "want illegal immigrants flooding into our Country" and said he couldn't see a deal, prompting Pelosi and her Senate counterpart, Chuck Schumer, to pull out of a White House meeting that day. The fact remains: Trump can make this easier or harder. Lawmakers don't know which one they'll get -- and, for better or worse, they're not sure it matters until the actual moment the deal is being finalized.