Congress eyes sweeteners to avoid shutdown, but no DACA deal

Democratic and Republican congressional staffers say there is little to no chance of a government shutdown this week....

Posted: Feb 5, 2018 7:25 PM
Updated: Feb 5, 2018 7:25 PM

Democratic and Republican congressional staffers say there is little to no chance of a government shutdown this week.

But that doesn't mean there's a clear script to how this week is going to play out. There is an opening -- small at the moment, but it does exist -- for a broader deal to be made.

But with aides making clear a resolution to address the expiring Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program isn't in the cards this week, at this moment it's more likely they just struggle to kick the can down the road again.

Bottom line: The government will remain open beyond Thursday, aides in both parties say. What lawmakers pass to get them to that point remains is still very much the subject of intense negotiations, according to multiple sources with direct knowledge the talks.

What we know right now on the spending bill

House Republicans are still planning to post a government funding bill Monday, with a targeted length of to March 22.

As it currently stands, House Democrats are again unlikely to give support to any continuing resolution without a DACA resolution, which means Speaker Paul Ryan and his leadership team will again need to muscle it through with only Republican votes.

The problems on that front are two-fold: First, defense hawks who are furious about what the continuing resolutions -- temporary spending bills -- are doing to military funding. Second, the conservative House Freedom Caucus, which is again wavering on whether to offer support.

To pacify the defense hawks, Senate Republicans plan to take up the House-passed stand-alone defense appropriations bill early this week. That will likely fail, as Democrats hold off from giving it the 60 votes it needs, seeking instead an all-encompassing spending bill.

Also, aides say, expect additions to the continuing resolution, likely in the form of community health center funding, and perhaps other items that are attractive to Democrats. It may not help bring House Democrats aboard, but will be necessary to ease the process in the Senate. This could happen in the House bill, or, if House GOP leaders find the votes on their own, when the bill gets to the Senate.

Most likely end game: House moves through their spending bill before House Democrats leave on their retreat Wednesday, and the Senate follows suit a few days later. But that is not locked in yet.

Here is the open question: How much can the Senate actually add to the bill to clear the decks?

Keep in mind the outstanding issues right now:

  • Community health center funding and an array of other health care spending items
  • Disaster relief bill
  • Debt ceiling increase
  • Budget caps deal
  • DACA

The details

DACA: There is no pathway for a DACA deal this week, according to aides in both parties. That will have to wait -- and is scheduled to get full Senate floor consideration the week of February 12. In the meantime, negotiations behind the scenes continue as to what that process will entail.

Budget caps: This is the elephant in the room. Multiple sources directly involved in these talks tell CNN after weeks and weeks of fits, starts and setbacks, things have ticked close to an actual deal. It's not there yet, but it's well within reach. The big question remains whether Democrats will sign off on something without a resolution to DACA, which clearly isn't coming in the near term.

But a caps deal would present major wins for both parties -- huge defense spending increases sought by Republicans and sizable domestic non-defense spending increases Democrats have long called for. Senate Democrats are more inclined to agree to something than their House counterparts, who are firm that the party should hold out as leverage for DACA.

If the Senate negotiators agree and decide to give it a go...well...it's a tough thing to vote against. The reality is, however: Republicans have to have Democratic votes in the House to move any caps deal forward. Which means House Democrats would have to get on board.

Debt limit increase: It's just a matter of finding a vehicle for this. The pressure has ratcheted up to move this sooner rather than later. Why? The Republican tax law, which will reduce withholding by "roughly $10 billion to $15 billion less than anticipated." In other words, the deadline has been moved up to the first half of March. Which means lawmakers need to find a vehicle to move it and soon.

Disaster relief bill: This is another item that has largely been laying in wait for a broader deal. At more than $80 billion (and likely more than $90 billion when it's all said and done), it's a must-have for lawmakers from hurricane ravaged Texas and Florida, and exceedingly crucial for Puerto Rico. There's an impetus to move this quickly -- if there's agreement on a vehicle that works.

Health care spending provisions: These can be packaged and ready to go whenever the time is deemed right. It's just a matter of figuring out the best/most attractive vehicle, per aides.

What does it all mean? There is limited, if somewhat pessimistic, chatter that there is major deal to be had this week. Will lawmakers get there? Recent history would say nope. Less is often more when it comes to just keeping the government open, so a continuing resolution with a few additional items (most likely the health care spending package) becomes the most likely path forward.

Key reminder: A large-scale deal isn't possible without House Democrats. They will have to provide the votes to get a broader deal across the finish line. The complete lack of trust on their side when it comes to DACA has driven their unwillingness to commit to a broader deal up to this point, and as of now, that posture remains unchanged.

Key reminder part 2: Those same House Democrats start their party retreat Wednesday. That's unquestionably a limiting factor in all of this for those who are trying to do something bigger.

The DACA dynamics

There's no DACA "deal" in the works this week.

But talks are ongoing -- and a driving force behind them will be positioning for the Senate floor consideration next week.

That, for example, is why you'll see a pared back bill from Sens. John McCain and Chris Coons released on Monday, which includes a legal status/pathway to citizenship for DACA recipients who have lived in the US since the end of 2013 and a detailed study to determine the border security measures needed in the future.

On its face, that's an non-starter for most Republicans, including President Donald Trump who rejected it on Twitter on Monday morning. But it's a prime example of putting something on the table in advance of the floor debate to set down a marker -- and perhaps provide a baseline for consideration next week.

But it also gets to the crux of the current debate (and split) on Capitol Hill right now about what a final resolution would entail.

RELATED: Debate over size of DACA deal takes over immigration fight

The key DACA question this week: As various groups continue to work to craft some kind of workable DACA proposal in the Senate, the big question right now is what the base bill -- or, if it's just shell -- what the amendment process will look like for the floor debate next week.

Thinking the DACA long game

The ballgame is still in the House. The Senate can do whatever it wants on the floor next week, but if it doesn't have the support of House Republican leadership and by far most importantly, the support of Trump

it doesn't matter, aides say. As such, there is increasing talk of pushing off DACA for a year, beyond the midterms, aides say. It's an idea in its earliest stages, and would likely only be triggered by a change in the court case that puts an immediate end to the program. But keep an eye on it.

Final reminder: The March 5 DACA deadline is no longer operative because of the court case. The deadline is now, essentially, dependent on the courts. So avoid the using March 5 as any kind of trigger point of deadline. Congressional aides working on this are no longer looking to that date.

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