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Budget talks progress, as Senate Dems drop Dreamer demand

Senate Democrats are willing to drop their demand that relief for Dreamers be tied to any long-term budget agreement — a potential boost for spending talks, but one that could face opposition from their House counterparts.

The shift comes in response to the deal struck between Senate leaders Monday to reopen the government and begin debate on an immigration bill next month. Meanwhile, budget negotiators are expressing optimism that a two-year agreement to lift stiff caps on defense and domestic spending is increasingly within reach.

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“We’re viewing [immigration and spending] on separate terms because they are on separate paths,” Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said Tuesday.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s “procedural concession means we’ve got a deadline and a process,” Durbin added. “That to me is a significant step forward. It’s not everything I wanted, that’s for sure, but it’s a step forward.”

But House Democrats have signaled they are not ready to go along with a long-term budget deal without a fix to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that President Donald Trump is ending.

“We are insisting that these things be in the same negotiation,” said a senior House Democratic aide. “To us, what’s important is are these talks linked or not linked? To us, they are linked.”

The division among Democrats is complicating negotiations, as lawmakers in both parties face intense pressure — and a two-week time crunch — to show progress on government funding, immigration and a raft of other issues that have resulted in the government operating on stopgap spending bills since September.

Both parties are eager for a long-term budget agreement, with GOP defense hawks furious about uncertainty for the Pentagon and liberal Democrats concerned about deep cuts to domestic programs. But any legislation to boost spending by upwards of $ 250 billion over two years would likely need broad bipartisan backing in both chambers, as House conservatives have already hinted they’ll balk.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), another member of Democratic leadership, said that although she would prefer a deal to protect young undocumented immigrants be part of budget negotiations, the agreement reached with McConnell could make that impossible. The Kentucky Republican has said the Senate would turn to an immigration bill only if the government is still funded, and few Democrats seem to want another shutdown.

“Feb. 8, we’re going to have another [stopgap bill]. But we have to have that budget agreement in order to move forward. … That’s the goal,” Murray said. “And then the deal is that if DACA is not part of that, then it will be the next thing considered.”

“Everyone’s first preference is to get it all done by the 8th,” a Senate Democratic aide said on Wednesday. “We haven’t speculated on what happens if it doesn’t all come together.”

If Democrats are indeed willing to deal on spending caps without a firm commitment on DACA, it would represent a significant shift in the budget talks, which have stalled for months over immigration.

“I think everybody has a pretty general idea about where it’s going to end up. But this has been again another casualty of the DACA issue, that they’ve refused to conclude those,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) said Wednesday when asked how close leaders are to a spending caps deal.

“There’s gonna have to be some agreement on the spending caps, I believe [by Feb. 8], because I am skeptical whether the House in particular will vote for another continuing resolution. That’s the dilemma created by our Democratic colleagues,” Cornyn added.

A magnifying glass is used to inspect newly printed one dollar bills. | Getty Images

Without a solution for Dreamers, Democrats have largely refused to acknowledge that they are making progress on a spending deal. But sources familiar with the talks say the distance between Republicans and Democrats has been narrowing for weeks.

Negotiators have already agreed to a massive boost to the Pentagon’s budget. While the figures are still in flux, multiple sources say Congress would raise military spending by at least $ 70 billion above the caps for fiscal 2018 and $ 80 billion in fiscal 2019.

That huge increase, much more than the White House’s most recent budget request, would deliver assurance to the GOP’s long-suffering defense hawks who have grudgingly voted for four short-term funding bills this fiscal year alone.

What remains is how much to spend on domestic programs, including everything from homeland security to the Department of Education.

GOP leaders have pitched a deal that would boost domestic agencies’ budgets by $ 45 billion to $ 50 billion over the caps for the next two years, sources say. Democrats, however, are insisting on at least $ 60 billion.

Under current spending caps, military funding would be limited to $ 549 billion in fiscal 2018. Domestic funding would be capped at $ 516 billion.

As Democrats have insisted on “parity” between the defense and nondefense spending boosts, GOP negotiators are eyeing creative budgetary maneuvers to get there.

Republican leaders are proposing tens of billions of dollars in additional domestic spending that wouldn’t count toward the caps, sources say. That would likely include billions in emergency funding to address the nation’s opioid epidemic, which both parties have called a priority.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), an ally of House GOP leadership, said in a phone interview Wednesday that opioid funding would be included “for sure” — likely in a way that wouldn’t count toward the caps.

Negotiators are also floating potential changes in mandatory spending — another budgetary gimmick — to further dodge the strict caps on discretionary spending. That could mean that programs with bipartisan support, like VA Choice, the private-sector health care program for veterans, would be moved to the mandatory side of the budget for good.

President Donald Trump is pictured. | Getty Images

“They’re so close on these numbers,” said Bill Hoagland, a former top Senate staffer now with the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Publicly, though, House and Senate spending talks have been stalled since Thanksgiving, when Senate and House Democrats declared they wouldn’t agree on spending until Dreamers were helped.

“In some way, the most important budget negotiations are the negotiations on DACA,” added Cole, a senior appropriator who writes the House’s health, education and labor spending bill.

“The phrase used to me [is], ‘We’re six inches away from a spending deal.’ It’s just simply the DACA issue and the immigration question.”

Seung Min Kim and Connor O’Brien contributed to this report.

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