Politics

A Dreamer Deal, Delayed

The president’s “shithole” comments make a tough negotiation almost impossible.

Headshot of Donald Trump.
President Donald Trump speaks to reporters at Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach, Florida, on Sunday.
Nicholas Kamm/Getty Images

The government will shut down at midnight on Friday if Congress can’t pass a spending bill this week. There was no plan for resolving this last week. And then “shithole” happened. Now, reaching a deal seems somewhere just beyond impossible.

The spending plan hinges on developing a bipartisan immigration plan to settle the fates of hundreds of thousands of so-called Dreamers who are enrolled in the expiring Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Without an agreement in place on DACA, Democrats aren’t going to deal on the broader issue of lifting spending caps, the topline figures for both defense and nondefense discretionary spending. A bipartisan working group of six senators did come up with a tentative DACA deal late last week, but when they ventured to the White House to present it to the president, he rejected it. That was the same meeting in which Trump referred to “shithole” countries. (Or was it “shithouse”? The president has alternately denied making such comments in the meeting and phoned his friends to brag about how well “shithole” was playing with his base.)

And so the past five days have gone. The ill will has led Trump to declare that DACA is “probably dead.”

Trump’s legislative prophecies are worth little, but his pessimism reflects a similar gloom on the Hill. Even in pre-“shithole” times, the sort of deal struck by the bipartisan group would have been a tough sell. Conservatives (and plenty of rank-and-file Republicans) in both the Senate and House did not care for the deal that had been negotiated: It offered protections not just to DACA beneficiaries but to the entire DACA-eligible population of Dreamers. To them, there wasn’t nearly enough border security, and far too many family-sponsored visas, to overcome the accusation of supporting “amnesty.” House Democrats, who just want a clean DREAM Act, didn’t like the deal either.

With those difficult questions still unresolved, we’re left in a familiar spot. Republican leaders will try to pass yet another stop-gap funding bill to keep the government open for a month or so, which would be the fourth of its kind since September. It’s not such a sure shot that this one can pass.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi will likely deny Republicans any Democratic votes on the short-term bill unless House Democratic priorities—like the DREAM Act or a CHIP reauthorization—are tacked on. That means Speaker Paul Ryan and his team would try to find the 217 necessary votes out of the 239-member House Republican conference. It took a lot of work to get enough Republicans on board the most recent time this came up, in December. It will be considerably tougher this time.

Defense hawks and appropriators are livid that a deal on caps hasn’t been reached. Automatic, across-the-board spending cuts stemming from a deficit reduction deal in 2011, called “sequestration,” are set to kick in if Congress doesn’t change that in this bill. That means that in the short-term bill, Republican leaders could either ignore the sequester cuts, and lose votes from defense hawks, or delay the sequester, and risk losing the votes of spending hawks. If Republicans can’t muster the votes on their own, Ryan will have to turn to Pelosi.

If Ryan can get enough House Republicans to pass a short-term bill on their own, the spotlight will then turn to Senate Democrats. The Senate needs 60 votes to proceed on any spending bill. (That’s why they’ve been having all of these overarching negotiations to begin with.) On the past couple of short-term bills, Senate Republicans have relied on Democratic senators up for re-election in “Trump states” to push them over the line. Progressives and immigration activists are livid with those Democrats, and with Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, for not using their leverage to secure a DACA deal. Schumer last week said that he expects to be able to embed a resolution in this short-term bill. But when asked whether he would whip his conference against the bill if it didn’t include a DACA deal, he deflected.

Maybe leaders will, over the course of two days, reach a preliminary deal on DACA, caps, and everything else, and then swiftly pass a spending bill for a couple of weeks that gives them time to draft all that they’ve agreed on.

But if you have any trips planned this weekend to national parks that would be closed under a lapse in federal appropriations, it’s not too early to make a contingency plan.

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Jim Newell

Jim Newell is a Slate staff writer.