A group of Senate Democrats is demanding that an immigration compromise be included in any government funding bill, raising the prospects of a possible government shutdown and rankling members of their own party.
The group is being led by Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), who has insisted that the chamber come to an agreement that shields children of undocumented immigrants from deportation by giving them a legal status. Durbin and some of his colleagues have said they would vote against a year-end spending bill if those protections are not codified by the end of the year. But it’s unclear if he has enough allies to stop a funding bill from becoming law—and not everyone in the party is eager to fight this battle.
Congress has until March to hash out a solution on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that President Donald Trump rescinded in September with a six-month phase-out.
As a solution, Durbin is pushing for the passage of the bipartisan DREAM Act, which he introduced earlier this year with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). Durbin wants it passed before the end of the year and has said he is willing to negotiate with Republicans on measures to increase security along the U.S. border with Mexico in return.
But some GOP immigration hardliners—and, more recently, Trump himself—have said any deal on DACA must address so-called chain migration and sanctuary cities. And Senate Republican leaders have already ruled out the idea of dealing with DACA before the end of the year.
“I hope that the senators who have said that will take a few minutes and meet with the DREAMers who have come to meet with us, and realize that there’s a sense of urgency,” Durbin told The Daily Beast. “They seem to think that a Senate that’s done nothing—virtually nothing—for an entire calendar year means more time off. I disagree.”
When asked if he would do anything it takes to ensure that DACA is codified in some form before the end of the year, Durbin smiled and walked into an elevator.
Durbin is not alone in his insistence on a DACA fix before the new year. But, so far, few have said they’d vote against a spending bill if DACA is not resolved—a move that would force a shutdown if enough senators are on board. Those who have made that threat include Sens. Kamala Harris (D-CA), Bernie Sanders (I-VT) Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.).
On Wednesday, a spokesman for Harris reiterated to The Daily Beast that the senator “has been clear she won’t support an end of year spending bill unless this issue has been resolved.”
While more liberal Democrats are in agreement on the issue, many of Durbin’s more moderate Democratic colleagues aren’t holding as a hard of a line on DACA.
“I think that’s a false choice,” Coons told The Daily Beast, referring to an immigration compromise and a government shutdown. “We’ve got a lot of unresolved problems facing our country. When Republicans control the House, the Senate, and the White House and we’ve got so many things from fires raging out of control to an unresolved immigration issue to unresolved natural disasters to unaddressed public health issues, my hope would be that we would work together to find a package that addresses all of them before we recess.”
In private conversations with Republican senators, Coons said, he senses an urgency to craft an immigration compromise sooner rather than later. But he doesn’t agree that forcing a government shutdown would be the way to get it done before the end of the year.
“I deeply admire Sen. Durbin’s persistence and commitment and dedication,” Coons said. “But as I just mentioned, there are a lot of other issues on our plate. So to make this a binary choice between, you have to do this or this is going to happen—is a misreading of where we really are.”
Democrats are warning of the risks that could come with waiting too long to codify DACA. Further delays would result in more recipients potentially losing their legal status, and Democrats argue it would throw more chaos and confusion into their daily lives as they prepare for a future in which DACA might not exist.
And then there are the political elements. Democratic grassroots activists have been pushing the party to ensure the passage of the DREAM act ever since Trump nixed the DACA program.
On Saturday, Women’s March—an organization sprung up out of the historic nationwide march against Trump—staged a creative protest in New York City. In conjunction with United We Dream, the largest immigrant youth-led organization in the country, activists walked in black veils and black outfits to symbolize the killing of dreams for these young men and women.
“History will not be kind to those who look for excuses, make up fake deadlines and shirk their responsibility to do what the vast majority of Americans want done,” said Frank Sharry, the executive director of America’s Voice Education Fund. “Young people are losing their toehold in the country that they live in and love. And only Congress can resolve this crisis. The moment of truth is upon us.”
But even some of the Senate’s more liberal members don’t appear to be spoiling for a fight over government funding. “I never have made a shutdown threat, and I’m not going to start now,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) told The Daily Beast.
While Democrats agree about the need to pass the DREAM Act, they disagree on timing and strategy. The government is set to run out of money on Friday night at midnight, and House and Senate leaders are discussing a two-week continuing resolution that would keep the government’s lights on until three days before Christmas—forcing lawmakers to act before they leave Washington until the new year.
Trump left open the possibility of a government shutdown either this week or later this month. And though his party controls both houses of Congress, he is laying the groundwork for blaming Democrats for a government shutdown by pinning it on their immigration-related demands.
Democrats are acutely aware of this and appear eager to avoid any of the political fallout that may come in the wake of a shutdown.
“We should fix DACA and we should never shut down the government of the United States,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) told The Daily Beast. “And we should never threaten to shut down the government of the United States.”
Trump is set to meet on Thursday with the top four congressional leaders to discuss year-end priorities. And Democrats were already playing defense ahead of the crucial sit-down.
“I haven’t heard anybody on the Democratic side threaten a shutdown—I’ve heard President Trump threaten a shutdown,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) told The Daily Beast.