Lawmakers circle deal on DACA, but it remains elusive

By Tal Kopan, CNN

(CNN) -- Talks in Congress on what to do on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program continue, but have yielded little progress toward a clear plan, setting up a potential showdown at the end of the year.

In conversations with nearly a dozen people involved in and close to the negotiations in Congress, most of whom spoke on condition of anonymity, it's clear that lawmakers continue to pursue some sort of compromise that would protect DACA-eligible individuals -- young undocumented immigrants brought to the US as children -- and add some border security and immigration enforcement in exchange.

But stars also seem to be increasingly aligning for a government funding fight at the end of the year, as conservative Republicans pursue hardline measures that would be difficult to pass while Democrats remain confident that they can hold out for a better deal.

On the House side, an immigration working group formed by Speaker Paul Ryan continues to meet, and it includes Republicans from across the spectrum of the party. But sources familiar caution that even as talks continue, a deal or plan for moving forward has yet to even begin to form.

On the Senate side, a collection of Republicans are in informal talks, including immigration and border security players like South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, Majority Whip John Cornyn, Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis, Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford and Georgia Sen. David Perdue. Graham continues to negotiate with his Dream Act cosponsor, Illinois Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin.

Durbin described what he saw as progress Wednesday, saying at a news conference held in support of DACA that he and Graham have been talking to Republicans about putting together a package that could get enough GOP votes to pass.

He also said "as of (Wednesday)" that Democrats were actively negotiating with Republicans over what border security measures could be acceptable to both sides in addition to Dream Act.

"We are now as of today officially in that negotiation," Durbin said. "We're trying to see if there's a path in the center that we may be able to achieve the Dream Act and border security in the right way."

Durbin said the negotiations were not centered, yet, on government funding, saying the group is "seizing any available opportunity to move the Dream Act" it can and has been "in active negotiation for the last several weeks."

"I want to grab the first train leaving the station that could help carry this bill," Durbin said. "I hope it's before the omnibus bill."

But Ryan opened the door to the possibility that a deal to preserve DACA and fund border security could fall on a December spending deal in a closed-door meeting with a group of House conservatives Tuesday, according to a senior GOP aide, which would indicate a deal that relies on Democratic support.

"There is no plan for this, and we continue to discuss with Republicans the best path forward," said Ryan spokeswoman AshLee Strong when asked about the comments, which were first reported by HuffPost.

Ryan himself said in a live interview Wednesday with Reuters that timing was in flux, though ultimately he wants to get a deal done.

"I don't know when we're going to do it," Ryan said. "We're having lots of discussions about how to do it. And the timing is something that's just open to debate. ... The goal is we want to fix this, we're working on it and we want to do it in such a way that we don't have this same problem down the road. That means border security and interior enforcement."

President Donald Trump remains a key wild card in the negotiations, as well. When the President decided to end the Obama-era DACA program, he designed a window for renewals that gave Congress six months to act before any DACA recipients had to lose their protections, and has repeatedly urged them to act to save the sympathetic population.

What he wants in exchange has remained a moving target. He has indicated funding for his border wall wouldn't have to be part of it, but has also reversed himself. The immigration principles released by the White House were considered by most on the Hill as a nonstarter, and the administration has not issued any specific veto threats in favor of or against proposals floating in Congress

"We're looking at DACA," Trump said Wednesday to reporters before taking off for a fundraiser. "We'll see what happens. I'd love to do a DACA deal. We have to get something very substantial for it. Including the wall, including security, including a strong border."

While advocates in favor of a generous DACA bill with modest border security hope that Trump could ultimately bless an emerging deal and thus ease the way for passage, hardliners on the right who are looking for tough immigration enforcement measures in exchange hope the President could put his thumb on the scale the other way.

"President Trump could change this dynamic altogether. If he came out and said, 'I will not sign a DACA fix that will not have X, Y and Z in it,' then everything changes," said Rosemary Jenks, director of government relations at NumbersUSA, which supports restricting immigration. "But he hasn't done that. I hope he will."

Alternatively, she said, he could risk a backlash from his base.

"This is him basically jumping into the swamp with both feet, especially to do it on the omnibus," Jenks said of a modest deal. "It's what people have come to expect of feckless Republican leaders; it's not what they expect from President Trump. So we'll see."

Those closely following negotiations increasingly believe a deal, if struck, will come from the Senate. Graham and Durbin's efforts are earnest, sources say, and the House working group has been stymied by a gulf between moderates and conservatives who are pushing for hardline measures to be included; such measures would face an almost impossible climb in the Senate and likely couldn't get votes from moderate Republicans in the House who could face substantial backlash in their districts.

While conservatives believe Democrats would ultimately cave in order to get protections for DACA recipients, Democrats feel strongly that their base would push for the best possible deal and would reject any option that would protect the DACA population while putting the broader immigrant community more at risk, emboldening Democrats to hold out.

"I don't have any doubt that our movement's going to say no to a bad deal," said Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice Education Fund, an immigration reform group.

"I've seen enough of these negotiations to know that it comes down to who has leverage in the endgame," Sharry added. "That's what's hard to predict (right now)."

While Democrats are not threatening yet to shut down the government over DACA, they are signaling the option could be on the table. Republicans regularly need Democratic votes to pass government funding, especially to offset conservative budget hawks who reject spending bills as too bloated.

"The intensity of feeling of this is very deep, and many of us feel we couldn't in good conscience go home for Christmas without seeing this law passed," Durbin said Wednesday.

California Sen Kamala Harris, a progressive Democrat increasingly talked about as a possible 2020 candidate, went a step further at the same press conference, joining Congressional Hispanic Caucus members who have discussed refusing to vote for funding with DACA unresolved.

"I will not vote for an end-of-year spending bill until we are clear about what we are going to do to protect and take care of our DACA young people in this country," Harris said.


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