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Big border deal fades before talks even begin

Democrats are ruling out the idea of negotiating on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals in exchange for a border wall, skeptical that the president would actually provide a permanent fix for the young undocumented immigrants. | Scott Olson/Getty Images

government shutdown

Democrats and Republicans are unlikely to trade wall funding for Dreamer relief in their dash to avert another shutdown.

Updated

Congressional negotiators haven’t even held their first meeting to avert another shutdown, but the prospect of a big deal on border security and immigration is essentially dead.

When President Donald Trump caved in on the 35-day shutdown fight last week, he encouraged Congress to come up with a compromise — perhaps a trade of wall funding for temporary relief for Dreamers as he had previously proposed.

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But Democrats are ruling out the idea of negotiating on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, skeptical that Trump would actually provide a permanent fix for the young undocumented immigrants after he previously rejected just such a deal. Meanwhile, top Republicans also doubt an expansive agreement could be put together in the next three weeks.

The fading prospects of the negotiation mean Trump is likely to receive only a fraction of the $ 5.7 billion he’s been seeking for his southern barrier in any deal, if one can be put together at all by Feb. 15. Then he would have to decide whether to unilaterally move funds around by declaring a legally dubious national emergency or embrace another debilitating shutdown.

“I’ve tried to work with this administration on issues involving immigration with a great level of frustration. And I do not want to take so many innocent people whose fate is hanging in the balance of this political debate and start off with the premise that we have a likelihood of solving their problem,” said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois, a Democratic negotiator on the conference committee, which meets for the first time Wednesday.

Many Republicans generally agree that any homeland security spending deal crafted by the bipartisan, bicameral group of 17 lawmakers should be “narrow” in scope, said Sen. John Cornyn, a former GOP whip.

“It’s not going to be a big immigration bill. Because it’s not within their portfolio,” he added.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is also fine with a modest agreement — as long as the government doesn’t shut down again. He said on Tuesday he for “whatever works.”

It’s hard enough to strike a deal on one politically perilous issue like border security; adding in more could make it downright impossible.

Not everyone is ruling out going big. Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), another conferee, said he is all for doing “a big deal if the president, the leadership of the House and the Senate wants to do a big deal … but only if they come together.”

Shelby added that he is “not optimistic,” however, about those prospects. At least for now. Much of it will come down to the president, he said.

It’s too early to say how closely involved the White House will be with the conference committee, but Trump’s legislative shop, led by top aide Shahira Knight, will be watching for signs that there’s a deal to be had. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) wants the White House to stay out, worried new demands from the president could scuttle a deal reached by Capitol Hill veterans.

Democrats aren’t entirely panning the idea of backing some new fence money and there appears to be an intentional softening on the party’s position.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries of New York told reporters Tuesday his party was “willing to support fencing where it makes sense, but it should be done in an evidence-based fashion.” And House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer wouldn’t rule the idea out in a discussion with reporters.

But when the deal-making gets serious, there will be massive pressure from the left to deny Trump his additional wall funding.

“We want modern solutions to border security, not 11th century solutions,” said Congressional Progressive Caucus Co-Chair Mark Pocan (D-Wis.). “We’ve been very clear that a wall is unnecessary, expensive, it’s a bad symbol for our country.”

Trump claimed last week that a number of Democrats told him they want to strike a deal on his wall and Dreamers. So far few of those phantom lawmakers seem to be stepping forward.

Mitch McConnell talks to reporters during a weekly press conference

Democrats’ decision to keep DACA off the table may surprise some. Just a year ago, they let the government shut down in hopes of winning protections for Dreamers at risk of deportation. Now Trump and Republicans are desperate for wall money.

But Democrats haven’t forgotten that Trump previously killed a bipartisan proposal to provide $ 25 billion for his wall and a path to citizenship for the Dreamers. And the party doesn’t want to get burned again. Hoyer, who controls the House floor, instead plans to bring separate legislation to help Dreamers and those with Temporary Protected Status to the floor in the “near future.”

The Supreme Court‘s ruling has alleviated considerable pressure on Democrats‘ need to find an immediate solution. The high court recently declined to take up a Trump request to consider the issue, meaning Trump’s move to end the program will remain blocked.

The members selected to serve on the conference committee also don’t necessarily bode well for a deal either. House Democrats have named perhaps their most progressive member, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), to sit on the conference committee. And Durbin didn’t even support $ 1.6 billion for fencing last year in a bipartisan bill that passed the Senate Appropriations Committee.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is keeping a close eye on things, huddling with her Democratic conferees on Tuesday morning, just a day before both sides would meet for the first time. Such a move worries Republicans hoping to lure the Democratic rank and file into a deal.

“It’s just a question of whether they’re going to be free to get a result or whether their leadership is going to tell them ‘no how, no way.’ I hope it’s the former,” said Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.). “There are Dems who will vote for fences … and won’t vote for concrete walls.”

As an opening position, House Democrats are expected to offer several billion dollars in additional border security money — though none for Trump’s wall. Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.), who chairs the Homeland Security spending panel, has been working on the proposal, which originally called for about $ 5 billion in border protection efforts, including funds for additional law enforcement agents and technology. That figure has been reduced and the proposal is still being tweaked, Democrats said.

Sen. Roy Blunt and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell

Some Republicans are unhappy that Democrats are taking DACA off the table already.

“That’s a mistake,” said GOP conferee Rep. Chuck Fleischmann of Tennessee. “They’re leaving a courageous opportunity put forth by the president, important to many key parts of their constituency, outside the scope of possibility.”

Fleischmann said he expects Republicans to walk into the meeting Wednesday and ask for what Trump demanded in the shutdown as their opening bid: $ 5.7 billion in wall money. Other Republicans agreed.

“Obviously we support what the president’s trying to do,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), another conferee. “It doesn’t really do us any good if we don’t get a bill that the president can’t sign.”

Of course, the White House offered Republicans some assurances Trump would sign a bill without big increases in wall funding in December, only for the president to reverse course and drive the government into the five-week shutdown.

Lawmakers in both parties know this time if they’re going to present the president with a bill, he needs to be able to tout it.

“Let the conference committee do the actual work and then the president is going to have to characterize this as a win. That’s the path,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii). “Because the alternatives were vigorously explored for the last 35 days and it was a failure.”

Eliana Johnson and Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.

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