WASHINGTON—Senators worked Tuesday to salvage a bipartisan plan to protect “Dreamers”—young undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. by their parents—as the divide grew over an immigration deal seen as key to avoiding a government shutdown this weekend.
The White House complicated the negotiations by insisting that Congress allocate billions more for President Donald Trump’s promised border wall with Mexico.
Without a spending agreement by 12:01 a.m. Saturday, the government will partially shut down operations. Many Senate Democrats were noncommittal Tuesday over whether they would allow a shutdown in an election year in which control of the Senate is in play.
Republicans were already preparing to accuse Democrats of shutting services because they didn’t get an immigration deal. But Democrats said Mr. Trump’s dismissal of “shithole countries” in Africa in a closed meeting last week with lawmakers positioned him as the person who upset the negotiations.
The immigration issue is growing more urgent as the calendar ticks toward March 5, the date Mr. Trump set for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, to end officially. Mr. Trump killed the Obama-era program in September and urged Congress to negotiate a replacement.
On Tuesday, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), an architect of the bipartisan Senate immigration plan, quizzed Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen on whether she understood that Republicans weren’t going to get everything they want in a compromise deal. And he bemoaned the seeming transformation of Mr. Trump from the deal-making optimist on display at a bipartisan discussion a week ago.
“I don’t know where that guy went. I want him back,” he said.
Ms. Nielsen was at the meeting in which Mr. Trump reportedly made the vulgar remark, but said at Tuesday’s hearing she couldn’t recall it. That drew attacks from incredulous Democrats.
“Your silence and amnesia is complicity,” Sen. Cory Booker (D., N.J.) shouted in response.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D., Ill.), Mr. Graham’s negotiating partner, said that the text of the bill will be available Wednesday, and that he is hoping for a preliminary Senate vote to gauge support “as quickly as possible.”
Republicans, seeking to separate the immigration and spending issues, were in less of a hurry. Marc Short, the White House director of legislative affairs, said it was unrealistic to expect an immigration deal to coalesce this week. “We’re optimistic that we’ll get a deal. I think this week would be fairly herculean,” he told reporters as he left an immigration meeting on Capitol Hill.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) said an injunction issued last week by a federal district court barring the cancellation of the DACA program might mean lawmakers have more time to reach an immigration deal. He is seeking to separate the issue from the stopgap spending bill needed this week to prevent a shutdown.
The Justice Department said Tuesday it was appealing that court decision, but meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security has resumed accepting DACA renewal applications.
“It is clear that Congress has at least until March at a minimum and possibly even longer to reach a compromise,” Mr. McConnell said on the Senate floor Tuesday.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders complained that the Graham-Durbin proposal of $1.6 billion for a border wall was only “one-tenth” of what the president actually wants. DHS recently laid out a 10-year, $18 billion plan to build more than 700 miles of new and replacement barriers, which the administration now appears to be insisting upon. Mr. Short said the concern is that Congress would provide one year’s funding and no more in future years.
But Mr. Durbin said the bipartisan proposal matches the amount in the president’s proposed budget for this fiscal year, plus an additional $1 billion for other border security measures. “We gave you every penny you asked for,” Mr. Durbin told Ms. Nielsen at Tuesday’s hearing.
The Durbin-Graham proposal also gives a path to citizenship for Dreamers; overhauls the diversity visa lottery program, which makes eligible immigrants from underrepresented countries; and makes modest reductions to family-based immigration, which opponents call “chain migration.”
“A very fair, bipartisan deal remains on the table,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) said Tuesday. “This may be the last train leaving the station. President Trump needs to get on it.”
Republican congressional leaders say they want to reach an agreement to aid the Dreamers, but want negotiations led by a different bipartisan group. That group consists of the four No. 2 leaders in each chamber: Reps. Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.) and Steny Hoyer (D., Md.) in the House, and Mr. Durbin and Sen. John Cornyn (R., Texas) from the Senate.
There was little sign of progress from that group, and the ideological preferences of the members may make it harder to find agreement. Mr. Cornyn and Mr. McCarthy take more conservative stances on immigration than Mr. Graham.
Mr. Hoyer thinks the Senate agreement is already too conservative. He said immigration legislation dealing with Dreamers shouldn’t make any changes to the diversity visa lottery or to family-immigration rules.
He called changes to these policies “highly objectionable to large numbers of our caucus, correctly so, and in any event are items to be discussed in the terms of comprehensive immigration reform.”
Democrats have some leverage this week because their votes are needed in the Senate and possibly the House to keep the government funded.
Some Democrats want to withhold votes on a funding measure without an immigration deal, but that is an uncomfortable situation for many of the 10 red-state Senate Democrats up for re-election this year.
House GOP leaders said Tuesday night they planned to bring to the floor Thursday a stopgap spending bill that would keep the government funded through Feb. 16. The measure would also include a six-year reauthorization of the Children’s Health Insurance fund, a one-year suspension in the health-insurance tax and a two-year suspension of both the medical-device tax and the Cadillac tax, a levy on generous employer plans.
Many House Republicans grumbled at the idea of passing yet another continuing resolution, or CR, rather than a longer-term deal with more funding for the military. The plan appeared to face significant opposition late Tuesday.
House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R., N.C.) told reporters that the House GOP plan was unlikely to garner enough Republican votes to pass.
“The general consensus tonight was that there is not support for the current leadership plan,” Mr. Meadows told reporters after the Freedom Caucus held an hour long meeting following the earlier meeting of the larger House Republican conference. He made his forecast based on the number of “no” and undecided votes within his group. “There’s not enough support to pass it with Republicans only.”
House Republicans are set to meet Wednesday morning as a group, a step that could lead to changes in the GOP strategy.
Also on Tuesday, the Trump administration issued a report aimed at bolstering its case tying immigrants to crime. It found nearly three-quarters of those convicted of terrorism-related charges in the U.S. since 2001 have been foreign-born. A senior administration official said that supports the administration’s argument that “chain migration” and the visa lottery program should end.
Still, the report cited less than a dozen examples that appeared to be linked to either of those policies. The official declined to say what percentage of the 549 individuals convicted of terrorism-related charges had arrived as part of either program.