As Congress barrels toward yet another self-imposed deadline to keep the government’s lights on, the path forward could rest with President Donald Trump.
But that’s not necessarily a comforting thought for Senate Republicans, who haven’t forgotten the last time Trump acted as mediator for key negotiations about government funding, when he bucked his own party and sided with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) to raise the debt ceiling for only three months. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) wanted a longer-term package, but the president signed onto a deal that would fund the government only through Dec. 8.
“I think the speaker and the majority leader are more likely to have his agenda in mind than Pelosi and Schumer,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO), a member of Republican leadership, told The Daily Beast on Monday.
On Tuesday, the executive and legislative branches will duke it out all over again. The president is hosting Ryan, Pelosi, McConnell, and Schumer at the White House. Democrats will lay out a host of priorities at the gathering—most notably, legal protections for children of undocumented immigrants that the Trump administration stripped in September.
“Ultimately, we need to do a bill that funds the government through the end of the next fiscal year and that addresses the important priorities that we need to address,” Sen. John Thune (R-SD), a member of Senate GOP leadership, said on Fox News Sunday, alluding to his caucus’ desire for a deal that extends beyond just a few months.
“I have absolutely no idea. That’s up to the president,” Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) said when asked if he expects the president to side with the Democrats again. Kennedy and his colleagues were more predisposed to answer questions about the Senate GOP’s tax overhaul bill, which is getting a preliminary floor vote this week.
Nearly three months ago, leaders agreed to attach disaster relief funds to the continuing resolution—a short-term funding measure—for Americans affected by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. But this time around, the stakes could be even higher.
Congressional leaders are mulling a legislative fix to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that Trump rescinded in September with a six-month phase-out. Congress has until March before DACA lapses.
But efforts to codify the program—which allows children of immigrants who entered the U.S. illegally to remain in the country with a protected status—have stalled. The general consensus on Capitol Hill is that a bipartisan deal would need to include extra funds for border security, a Republican demand that most Democrats support.
But they disagree on strategy. Democrats, pointing to congressional inaction on a host of topics this year, see an opening with the government funding bill to capitalize on an opportunity to codify DACA, as well as reauthorize the Children’s Health Insurance Program—which has lapsed amid congressional inaction—among a litany of other priorities.
“We need to come to agreement on all of these issues, and quickly,” Schumer said Monday during a speech on the Senate floor.
But Schumer and his colleagues have, for the most part, declined to make any ultimatums. Senate Democrats were mum on the shutdown issue on Monday, waiting to see what comes together after Tuesday’s meeting with Trump.
But on Sunday Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), the second-highest ranking Democrat in the Senate, did not rule out forcing a government shutdown to codify legal protections for so-called DREAMers.
“Let me tell you, I’m not prepared to go home for the holidays until we get our work done,” Durbin said on CNN’s State of the Union.
Durbin and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) have introduced a bipartisan DREAM Act that would satisfy the senators’ demands. Graham is on board with Durbin’s push for DACA to be tied to the government funding bill, saying on CNN: “Let’s take care of a lot of problems at one time to show the country we actually can function.”
Graham, however, has precious few allies among his Republican colleagues in the Senate. Thune has cautioned against tying DACA to a funding bill, dismissing talk of a government shutdown altogether.
“That is a consequential legislative issue that needs to be dealt with, but it shouldn’t be dealt with in the context of a year-end spending bill and the Democrats using it—trying to use leverage to shut down the government,” Thune said. “The DACA issue and border security need to be negotiated separately, hopefully sometime next year.”
Republican defense hawks, notably Graham and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), are pushing for a boost in defense spending—particularly in light of recent accidents involving American military personnel serving overseas—that could be paired with spending hikes for non-defense programs in order to satisfy Democrats.
“We have cut and cut and cut to the point where we have accidents where our service members are killed and wounded because we refuse to give them what they need to defend the nation. It’s a crime,” a frustrated McCain told The Daily Beast on Monday.
The sentiment on Capitol Hill is that anything could happen at Tuesday’s meeting—particularly when it comes to DACA, because of the president’s own conflicting statements on the issue. He campaigned as a hardliner on illegal immigration but has expressed an apparent willingness to play ball with Democrats on the DREAM Act.
Pelosi said in September that Trump told her he would sign it into law, giving Democrats a sliver of hope that they could get Trump on board. Schumer and Pelosi plan on bringing up the issue during Tuesday’s meeting.
But White House press secretary Sarah Sanders on Monday batted down the idea of attaching a DACA fix to the funding bill, saying Democrats shouldn’t “put our service members abroad at risk by trying to hold the government hostage over partisan politics and attaching that to that.” Sanders said Trump’s idea of immigration reform would include DACA, but the White House has not committed officially to the DREAM Act.
Still, Democrats hope they can convince the president to break with his own party and force him into their corner.
“In Congress, anything’s possible,” Graham joked.