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Coming soon: Another showdown over Dreamers in Congress

The next immigration battle might be right around the corner.

The Senate’s protracted debate last week deadlocked with a predictable flurry of finger-pointing and insults. But the chamber will likely reprise the fight ahead of the next and presumably final deadline to avoid another government shutdown on March 23.

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A must-pass, roughly $ 1.3 trillion spending bill may be the last chance before the midterm elections for the two parties to achieve their top immigration-related priorities: protecting Dreamers from deportation or build President Donald Trump’s border wall. Whether they can succeed after their repeated failures is anyone’s guess, but they’re expected to try.

One possibility would be a scaled-down compromise that would extend protections for hundreds of thousands of young immigrants for an additional three years in exchange for three years of wall funding. That would punt the decision on a permanent fix past Trump’s first term as president.

Other potential scenarios are an even shorter fix for the Dreamers, or, given the chamber’s track record, no deal at all.

Still, the massive “omnibus” spending package gives both sides a chance to achieve their ends. Democrats and pro-immigration reform Republicans, such as Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) are looking for every possible avenue to shield enrollees in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program from removal.

“That’s the best vehicle right now,” Flake said of the spending bill.

He’s in talks with Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota on whether they will press to include a DACA patch as part of the omnibus. That spending package is also probably the last chance before the midterm election to secure money for the wall, Trump’s signature campaign issue. Indeed, Republicans believe a push by Trump for that money will inevitably trigger another showdown on immigration, on the heels of failure of the last one.

The “White House’s biggest vulnerability is if the president wants the wall dealt with in the [omnibus]. This inevitably opens the door to another immigration debate on a spending bill,” said a Senate Republican aide.

Whatever Congress produces is likely to be far narrower than the proposals that the Senate just rejected. Those include a bipartisan deal as well as Trump’s plan to cut legal immigration in return for border funding and a pathway to citizenship for 1.8 million young immigrants.

Senate Democrats say they’re not eager to engage in talks with the White House for a temporary solution to the DACA problem. They believe their compromise offers last week — including $ 25 billion in border wall funding in exchange for offering DACA-eligible immigrants a pathway to citizenship — were more than generous, and that it’s on Republicans now to produce a plan.

“Honestly, they’re kidding themselves if they think they’re going to negotiate a patch for the wall. If they want a patch, it will be theirs to put forward and pass,” said a senior Democratic aide.

But Republicans think they may have more leverage in the future if Democrats don’t deal now. Some GOP leaders and White House officials are confident they’ll get the best deal by waiting out Democrats. They predict the Supreme Court will overrule lower courts that put a temporary halt on Trump’s decision to rescind DACA on March 5.

“I’m pretty confident that’s true,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn. The Texas Republican, however, has also acknowledged the possibility that the spending bill could include immigration language, but said that solution is “not great.”

White House officials and some Republicans believe waiting for court action would offer them an advantage over Democrats by forcing them to capitulate to Trump’s DACA demands or face a public relations crisis by not compromising. But the political positioning is not being taken kindly by some moderates pushing for a more immediate solution.

President Donald Trump is pictured. | Getty Images

“It’s awfully sad we’re playing that kind of game with people’s lives,” said Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) of Republicans searching for more leverage.

Rather than risk a crisis-driven immigration confrontation, Flake believes Democrats will take his deal, or some version of it, if it is clear there is no better option. Right now, Republican Sens. John Thune of South Dakota, Rob Portman of Ohio and Jerry Moran of Kansas are pushing a plan to provide Trump $ 25 billion in border money in return for making the DACA program permanent, albeit with no path to citizenship.

Flake said his proposal will be far more appealing than the Thune bill, which he worries could produce “a situation where we have people that have permanent second class citizenship.”

“I do think that’s something the Democrats can go for,” Flake said of his simple border security for DACA protections swap. The fiscally conservative senator would have to compromise, too: Typically he opposes omnibus bills and big boosts in spending.

Republicans working on the issue said if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) can agree on a narrow DACA deal to attach to the omnibus, the Senate and House could follow suit. That would require McConnell to move away from Trump’s plan and Schumer to allow a temporary DACA reprieve, a big if. And no such talks are currently underway.

But “this is the path to Trump getting his victory on the ‘wall,’” said a second Republican Senate aide.

The question underlined repeatedly by McConnell and his GOP allies is this: What will Trump sign? The president was clear last week he would not sign anything that fell short of his “four pillar” vision to reform family-based immigration, slash the diversity lottery, fortify the border and offer DACA eligible immigrants a pathway to citizenship.

The bill couldn’t crack 40 votes in the Senate last week. But some senators believe he may compromise next month after being handed such a stinging defeat on his legislation.

“The president is not going to move on this [right now]. But he might later,” said a Republican senator.

David Shulkin is pictured. | Getty Images

“The White House has to understand, the Senate’s different. We’re geared to work in a bipartisan way,” said Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).

The Senate is unlikely to take up a standalone immigration bill in the near future after this month’s failure, according to Republican senators. “If a solution is developed in the future that can pass both the House and the Senate and be signed into law by the president, we should turn to it,” McConnell said at the conclusion of last week’s debate.

But if Trump won’t settle for a narrow DACA solution and some of his wall money, there are worries that the immigration stalemate will infect everything else that Congress tries to work on. That could include everything from a spending bill supported by dozens of lawmakers in both parties, to an upcoming reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration to any small-ball bill that Congress tries to tackle in an election year.

“My goal in all of this is to try and take away some of the fear that these kids are dealing with,” said Heitkamp, who hopes the Senate is able to eventually move on to banking reform and cracking down on sex trafficking. “This isn’t a big issue to North Dakota. But this is an issue standing in the way of other things getting done.”

Elana Schor contributed to this report.

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