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Immigration deal distant as leaders try to avert shutdown

Sen. Kamala Harris D-Calif., accompanied by Sen. Cory Booker D-N.J., questions Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen during a hearing Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill. (Jose Luis Magana / Associated Press)
Sen. Kamala Harris D-Calif., accompanied by Sen. Cory Booker D-N.J., questions Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen during a hearing Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill. (Jose Luis Magana / Associated Press)
By Alan Fram and Andrew Taylor Associated Press

WASHINGTON – A deal between President Donald Trump and Congress to protect young immigrants from deportation remained distant Tuesday, as House Republicans leaders turned their attention to building support for a backup plan: a stopgap funding bill to stave off 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 Republicans tried to win over wary conservatives with a promise to repeal unpopular Obama-era health law taxes. Democratic leaders said they would not promise to vote to keep the government open past a Friday deadline without a plan to preserve a program that protects the young immigrants known as “Dreamers.”

“We don’t want to shut down the government. … We want to keep the government open,” Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told reporters. “But we’re not going to be held hostage to do things that we think are going to be contrary to the best interests of the American people.”

With Democrats digging in, House GOP leaders moved quickly to try to unite the party behind a new stopgap funding measure before federal agencies begin to close Friday night. They sweetened the plan with a two-year delay on implementation of unpopular taxes on medical devices and generous employer-subsidized health care plans. The taxes, also unpopular with many Democrats, are part of former President Barack Obama’s marquee health law.

The temporary funding bill would also include a long-delayed, six-year renewal of a popular health insurance program for children of low-income families. It would fund the government through Feb. 16.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., unveiled the plan at a Tuesday evening GOP meeting and lawmakers and aides said it was received well, raising hopes that a potential shutdown would be sidestepped with relative ease.

Many Democrats said they’re still unlikely to support the measure without an agreement on immigration – a deal which was derailed, in part, by Trump’s incendiary remarks about “shithole” countries in Africa last week. Democrats appeared to see scant reason to bargain with a president many in their party view as holding racist views on immigration.

“There’s no trust there,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona, who said he will probably oppose a short-term spending bill if there is no immigration deal.

Negotiations on immigration were to resume Wednesday but Marc Short, a top White House aide, said an agreement was very unlikely to come this week. “We’re optimistic that we’ll get a deal,” Short said. “I think this week would be fairly Herculean.”

Republicans have enough votes to push a measure through the House if they stay largely united. But some House GOP defense hawks could 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 Angus King voted to keep the government open. Seven of those Democrats face re-election in November in Trump-won states – including West Virginia, North Dakota and Montana, which have small numbers of minority voters. Others – like Virginia Democrats Tim Kaine and Mark Warner – represent states with many federal workers who don’t want a shutdown.

Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, said Tuesday he’ll vote for a short-term spending bill without a plan to assist the immigrants facing possible deportation. Other red- and swing-state Democrats did not commit.

“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,” Manchin said.

Democrats voting against that December bill included some senators – such as Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California – who might seek the presidency in 2020 and would love support from their party’s liberal voters.

On the left, liberal groups are ramping up pressure on Democrats to resist any spending plan – even a short-term continuing resolution. Groups like MoveOn, United We Dream and CREDO shifted their focus from Republicans to Democrats earlier in the month, threatening primary challenges and public ridicule for Democrats unwilling to risk a government shutdown to save the program for young immigrants.

“Democrats don’t get a pass,” said Angel Padilla, policy director for the liberal group Indivisible. “We understand they’re on the right side of this, but it’s not enough just to say you support” a fix.

Meanwhile, the bipartisan group of senators continued work to build support for a plan to protect the “Dreamers” and toughen border security, including funds to start building Trump’s long-promised border wall. But few carried hopes it would come together this week.

Trump ended the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or 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.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell sought to highlight the later deadline, suggesting there was more time to work out a deal. A shutdown now would be “a manufactured crisis,” he argued.

“With no imminent deadline on immigration, and with bipartisan talks well underway, there is no reason why Congress should hold government funding hostage over the issue of illegal immigration,” he said.

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