Democrats face make-or-break moment on shutdown, Dreamers

Congressional Democrats face a critical decision this week as negotiations to shield 700,000 young undocumented immigrants from deportation stall: Are they willing to shut the government down to protect Dreamers?

Government funding runs out on Friday. And with talks about a bipartisan budget and immigration deal on the rocks, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) are preparing a fourth short-term spending measure to buy more time to negotiate.

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But as the March 5 end-date for the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program looms, Democrats are under increased pressure to hold the line for an immigration solution. Outside groups have urged Democrats to vote against any legislation until the matter is addressed, and some progressives are itching for a shutdown fight that forces Republicans to deal on immigration.

“I think it would be a terrible mistake to shut down the government and particularly while we are negotiating in good faith. Just because we’re not meeting their deadline, that’s not really very productive,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) said Tuesday.

Cornyn and other deputy leaders — Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) — continue to engage in immigration talks that Republicans are hopeful will yield a deal.

Cornyn said he spoke with McCarthy over the weekend and Durbin on Tuesday morning. Their staffs are expected to meet again this afternoon.

“We continue to work. We know we got a deadline so we got to get this thing done,” Cornyn said.

“It can’t just be an agreement between six senators,” Cornyn continued, referencing the bipartisan agreement Durbin and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) presented last week that was dismissed by the White House. “It has to be one that will pass both houses and that the president would sign and I’m committed to making sure we stay at it until we find a solution.”

But Democrats remain pessimistic that the group can reach an agreement and some have said privately they think the talks are an effort by Republicans to stall on immigration in order to secure Democratic votes to keep the government open.

Democratic leaders have remained steadfast in their unwillingness to strike a long-term budget accord with Republicans until DACA is resolved. But they — particularly Senate Democrats — have been unwilling to withhold votes for temporary funding measures keeping the government open.

Eighteen Senate Democrats voted for a so-called “continuing resolution” last December, kicking the deadline to Jan. 19. That’s because there’s a fear among Democratic leaders and centrists that they’ll be blamed for shuttering federal agencies — and that President Donald Trump’s accusation that they’re doing so to protect undocumented immigrants will backfire.

“The Democrats want to shut down the Government over Amnesty for all and Border Security,” Trump tweeted Tuesday morning in a pre-emptive blame-game. “The biggest loser will be our rapidly rebuilding Military, at a time we need it more than ever. We need a merit based system of immigration, and we need it now! No more dangerous Lottery.”

Of course, GOP leaders are experiencing their own internal tensions. House Republican sources say they don’t currently have the 218 votes to carry a short-term spending measure by themselves.

Defense hawks in the party are furious that leaders have yet to reach a budget accord to increase Pentagon funding and have threatened to vote against the measure without a long-term funding deal that provides stability for the military.

House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) told reporters Tuesday he thought congressional leaders could reach a spending caps deal as soon as today. But Democratic leaders have shown no desire to strike a long-term funding agreement until DACA is resolved — and could face an intra-party revolt if they did so.

“Frankly, I think it’s not that hard to get a DACA deal, but the question is do they want to?” Thornberry said.

If Ryan can’t muscle the votes from his own party, he’ll have to turn to Democrats. One option being considered includes attaching long-term funding for the children’s health insurance program — an addition that would theoretically entice some House Democrats, particularly Congressional Black Caucus members, to vote for the bill.

In December, when GOP leaders attached a short-term CHIP provision to the stop-gap bill funding the government through Jan. 19, some Democrats privately complained about voting against the measure.

It’s unclear, however, if the president’s recent racially charged comments about African countries and Haiti being “shithole” countries will change that calculus. CBC members have discussed censuring the president for those remarks, and over the weekend, civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) blasted the president for what he called racist remarks.

Should the CR clear the House, it could face an uphill battle in the Senate, where nine Senate Democrats are needed for passage.

On “Meet the Press” Sunday, host Chuck Todd asked Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado if he believed it was worth shutting down the government to force a DACA compromise. Bennet demurred.

“I hope it doesn’t come to that,” Bennet said. “I think that … It should not come to that. We should stop shutting this government down.”

Bennet, however, comes from a swing-state. Other Democrats, like Dick Durbin of Illinois, have suggested they won’t back any spending agreements without a deal.

But lawmakers are still hopeful a deal will be reached by Friday.

“I don’t think there’s going to be a shutdown,” Cornyn said. “I think that would be a big mistake.”

Connor O’Brien contributed to this report.

Nielsen testifies: ‘I did not hear’ Trump say ‘shithole’

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen is pictured. | AP Photo

“What he was referencing is from the merit-based perspective, we’d like to have those who have skills, who can similarly contribute to the United States,” Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said. | Gregory Bull/AP Photo

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen testified Tuesday that she did not hear President Donald Trump refer to African nations as “shithole” countries — remarks he reportedly made last week that triggered an international uproar and roiled ongoing immigration talks on Capitol Hill.

The profane comments, confirmed by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and multiple sources, were not disputed by White House officials immediately after they were reported by the Washington Post and other news outlets. But in the days since, Trump has denied specifically using that phrase, though he has stressed that he did use “tough” language.

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“I did not hear that word used, no sir,” Nielsen said at a hearing under questioning from Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). Asked whether Trump used a similar word, the DHS chief responded: “The conversation was very impassioned. I don’t dispute that the president was using tough language. Others in the room were also using tough language.”

Trump’s remarks, during a meeting with Durbin and other lawmakers at the White House, came when Trump was expressing his desire to shift the nation’s immigration system into one based on merit, Nielsen said.

Leahy also pressed Nielsen on Trump’s reported comments that he would like more immigrants from Norway. Nielsen responded: “I don’t believe he said that specifically.”

“What he was referencing is from the merit-based perspective, we’d like to have those who have skills, who can similarly contribute to the United States,” she said.

When Leahy asked Nielsen whether Norway is a predominantly white country, the secretary dodged: “I actually do not know that, sir.”

Leahy on Tuesday called Trump’s remarks “the most vulgar and racist thing I’ve ever heard” from a president, either Democrat or Republican.

Durbin: ‘I stand by every word’ of ‘shithole’ statement

Dick Durbin is pictured here. | Getty Images

Sen. Dick Durbin has accused President Donald Trump of not standing by his pledge to support any deal reached by lawmakers on immigration. | Alex Wong/Getty Images

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said Tuesday he stood by “every word” of his statement that President Donald Trump referred to foreign countries as “shithole countries” during a bipartisan meeting on immigration last week.

“I stand by every word I said about what was said and what happened at that meeting,” Durbin told reporters on Capitol Hill.

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The Illinois Democrat came under fire from fellow senators and the president after corroborating media reports last Thursday that Trump questioned why the U.S. was admitting people from “shithole countries” or “shitholes” during a meeting on immigration reform at the White House.

Durbin, one of the lawmakers in attendance, was the first to speak out and support the reports, saying Trump used “hate-filled” and “racist” language “several times” during the summit. But the account has been contested by his Republican colleagues, with two GOP senators denying the president used such language.

“I’m telling you he did not use that word, George, and I’m telling you it’s a gross misrepresentation,” Sen. David Perdue of Georgia said on ABC News Sunday. He and Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas had issued a statement Friday saying they had no recollection of Trump making the remarks. They have since outright denied the president used the reported wording.

Trump lashed out at Durbin on Monday, saying he “totally misrepresented” what he had said, criticizing “Dicky Durbin” for impeding negotiations on the so called “Dreamers.”

“Senator Dicky Durbin totally misrepresented what was said at the DACA meeting. Deals can’t be made when there is no trust! Durbin blew DACA and is hurting our military,” Trump tweeted.

Durbin on Tuesday urged Republican leadership to take up the DACA deal the bipartisan group of lawmakers had reached, saying the agreement had “met the president’s criteria.” Durbin also accused Trump of not standing by his pledge to support any deal reached by lawmakers on immigration.

“Remember at one point when he said, ‘whatever you send me I’ll sign. I’ll take the political heat on this’?” Durbin said. “Well [when] we showed up Thursday with our bipartisan bill and presented it to him it was a much different story.”