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Story highlights

Lawmakers are racing toward a January 19 deadline for government funding

Democrats have been careful in their messaging, as have Republicans

(CNN) —  

Democrats are facing a tightrope challenge to achieve their goal of protecting young undocumented immigrants this month: Keep attention on the issue, but don’t let it get singled out.

Already, both sides have begun messaging on the topic, with Republicans accusing Democrats of wanting to shut down the government over immigration and of being unreasonable, and Democrats maintaining they’re fighting for a host of programs beneficial to Americans.

Lawmakers are racing toward a January 19 deadline for government funding with no plan for a long-term budget and a host of issues tied to the negotiations, including the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which protected young undocumented immigrants who came to the US as children from deportation and which President Donald Trump has decided to end.

The logic is that any long-term funding deal — which Republicans urgently want to fund the military and avoid mandatory sequestration budget cuts — will require Democrats, both in the Senate, where 60 votes are needed to advance legislation, and in the House, where fiscal hawks generally reject overall budget numbers on principle. That gives Democrats virtually their only leverage all year in a Washington where Republicans control the House, the Senate and the White House.

But while Democrats feel confident demanding that a suite of priorities be included in any budget deal and rejecting ones that fall short, the perception that a spending deal falls through — and thus the government shuts down — solely because of DACA could be too difficult for vulnerable red-state Democrats to swallow.

That was the case in December, advocates say, when Democrats helped Republicans pass a short-term extension of government funding despite repeated promises to not go home for the holidays without a DACA deal. Advocates warn that if Democrats are going to be successful in getting a compromise on DACA this time around, that can’t happen again.

“If Democrats stay united on all issues, and (DACA) doesn’t get isolated the way it was in December, then there’s a better chance that Democrats have leverage to compel the kind of negotiations that might produce a deal in time,” Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice Education Fund, a pro-immigration reform group, told reporters.

Democratic lawmakers who have long pushed for immigration reform have been concerned for months that leadership could abandon their issue at the last minute.

But thus far, they remain confident in their negotiating position and their negotiators.

“No, I think we have two stalwarts in Dick Durbin and Steny Hoyer and I’m very, very happy they’re there,” said Illinois Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez on Tuesday. Rep. Hoyer, of Maryland, and Sen. Durbin, of Illinois, are the Democratic whips of their respective chambers.

Democrats have been careful in their messaging, as have Republicans, as the deadline nears.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, has been disciplined in including DACA when talking about a laundry list of essential items, as he did on the Senate floor on Tuesday. Likewise, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, has responded to questions about DACA timing with questions about whether Democrats would shut down the government over that issue specifically, saying Monday that “Democrats are holding (a budget) deal hostage for a DACA negotiation.”

“When you hear Schumer saying ‘no piecemeal’ and ‘global deal,’ that’s to maximize the unity in his caucus and to maximize their leverage,” Sharry said. “I think it’s quite an intelligent strategy. … As long as Democrats have a united front with a number of issues that they’re holding together, we think that puts us in the best chance to get to the serious negotiations.”

Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly of Virginia said he would “reject” any characterization of Democrats shutting down the government over DACA or anything else, saying it was essential for Democrats to stay united and keep all their issues together.

“Right now, there’s a lot of linkage with a lot of issues, and Deocrats are doing, I think, the right thing in highlighting the unfinished business and the linkages, right?” Connolly said, citing children’s health insurance, veterans’ benefits, surveillance reform and DACA. “And you’ve got to use all the leverage you’ve got while you’ve got it.”

CNN’s Ted Barrett contributed to this report.