Immigration deal distant as leaders try to avert shutdown

WASHINGTON — A deal between President Donald Trump and Congress to protect young immigrants from deportation remained distant Tuesday, as House Republicans leaders shifted to a painful backup plan: crafting a stopgap funding bill that would merely delay the threat of an election-year shutdown.

The focus on a budget Plan B — another temporary measure that would buy time for more talks — was the latest sign of a breakdown in bipartisan deal-making in a Congress that has struggled to find common ground even on areas of broad agreement.

House GOP leaders, seeking to lock down support among conservatives for the stopgap funding measure, are looking to sweeten it with a plan to delay implementation of unpopular taxes on medical devices and generous employer-subsidized health care taxes, according to GOP aides. The taxes, also unpopular with many Democrats, are part of former President Barack Obama’s marquee health law.

The aides, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the plan is not yet public, also predicted the measure would include a long-delayed renewal of a popular health insurance program for children. Democrats said they’re still unlikely to support the measure without an agreement on immigration.

Trump’s incendiary remarks about “shithole” countries in Africa last week dashed any hopes of a quick immigration deal coming together this week. Democrats appeared to see scant reason to bargain with a president many in their party view as holding racist views on immigration. GOP leaders turned to rounding up Republican votes to fund agencies set to begin closing by Friday night.

“Where does it end?” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. “Does it end with the government being shut down? We should all be kicked out if that happens.”

Graham is among a half-dozen senators of both parties who crafted an immigration agreement that Trump shot down last week. The agreement would have protected young immigrants brought to the country illegally as children — called “Dreamers” — and toughened border security with steps including funds to start building Trump’s long-promised border wall. Trump has said he’ll cancel the program — known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA — in March if no agreement emerges. Some Democrats are demanding a deal as a condition for their vote to keep agencies afloat.

The White House acknowledged the unlikelihood of a deal emerging in time.

“I think that we’re optimistic that we’ll get a deal. I think this week would be fairly Herculean,” said White House aide Marc Short.

Republicans were discussing legislation financing agencies into February and giving bargainers more time to strike deals on immigration and a long-term budget.

House Republicans were meeting privately late Tuesday to discuss their plans, and bargainers from both sides talked of gathering Wednesday. Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., among the half-dozen senators who wrote the bipartisan proposal, said they were still working to build support for their plan.

Should federal agencies close their doors, both parties would be gambling that the public would blame the other side.

Democrats argue that blame would fall on Republicans, who control Congress and the White House.

Republicans say Democrats would lose if they tried justifying a shutdown by blaming Trump and the GOP for not agreeing to a compromise on immigrants. They say that argument would play especially poorly for Democratic senators seeking re-election in the 10 states Trump won in the 2016 election — including West Virginia, North Dakota and Montana, which have small numbers of minority voters.

Republicans have enough votes to push a measure through the House if they stay largely united. But some House GOP defence hawks are threatening to vote no because they want lawmakers to approve long-term spending for the Pentagon. Conservatives were also threatening to balk.

“The current direction of negotiations on immigration and spending is not encouraging conservative members to support that effort,” Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., leader of the House Freedom Caucus, said in a text message Tuesday. He said initial indications were that “spending limits are so high that any Republican should blush.”

Republicans will need at least nine Democratic votes to push a spending package through the Senate, which the GOP controls 51-49. Democrats seeking leverage are forcing that bill to require 60 votes for passage.

When the Senate approved a similar short-term spending bill in December, 17 Democrats plus Maine independent Sen. Angus King voted to keep the government open. Seven of those Democrats face re-election in November in Trump-won states, while others — like Virginia Democratic Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner — represent states with many federal workers who don’t want a shutdown.

Democrats voting against that December bill included senators who might seek the presidency in 2020 and would love support from their party’s liberal voters, including Booker and Kamala Harris of California.

Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, said Tuesday he’ll vote for a short-term spending bill without the DACA fix.

“I think everyone has the empathy and compassion to want to help these young people who are stranded and we’re trying to find that, but shutting down the government isn’t going to help them. Us staying here and working and finding a deal is what’s going to help them,” he said.

Trump ended DACA late last year but gave Congress until March 5 to pass legislation extending the initiative created by President Barack Obama. It has protected around 800,000 young immigrants from deportation.

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