Walking to the Capitol Building Saturday evening surrounded by congressional aides, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), the lead Democratic immigration negotiator, appeared exhausted and despondent.
“I honestly don’t know what is going on,” he told Vox. He said he hadn’t seen Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer for hours.
The government spending deadline elapsed at midnight, and the shutdown had been in effect for nearly a day. Yet Democrats and Republicans are still deep in a standoff over the future of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which President Trump has promised to sunset fully by March 5. Many of the young immigrants protected from deportation by the program grew up as Americans, speak English, and, as a requirement of the program, are gainfully employed. But their fate has become the center of the shutdown fight, one that doesn’t look like it’ll be resolved anytime soon.
Republican and Democratic senators negotiated into the early hours of Saturday morning trying to make a deal, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been unable — or unwilling — to make assurances that a bipartisan immigration bill would make it to Trump’s desk.
By morning, Democrats had walked away from a short-term government spending bill that would have extended the shutdown deadline by four weeks and funded the Children’s Health Insurance Program for six years — something that Democrats have been calling for since the program’s funding lapsed last October — because it did not include a path forward on immigration. The spending bill failed with both Democratic and Republican defections.
Since, McConnell has offered to shorten the short-term spending bill, heeding to only part of the demands from Democrats, who want to hasten Congress’s urgency on DACA negotiations as well as ensure a vote on a final bipartisan package.
But it appears negotiations on immigration and to reopen the government are still on shaky ground. Currently, a proposal would shorten the spending deadline from four weeks to three.
“The date is important. But even more is answering some basic questions about how we move forward avoiding these continuing resolutions and resolving the issues that still face it.” Durbin said.
At the center of the impasse is Trump himself. Frustrated with the president’s apparent unwillingness to agree to bipartisan solutions for longer than a couple of hours, Democrats can’t find a path forward.
On Friday, Schumer went to the White House and said he was ready to make serious concessions to Trump — offering up more money to fund his border wall, an issue Democrats have thus far held a hard line against. It’s not clear what Schumer offered to Trump exactly.
A bipartisan proposal from Durbin and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) would offers legal status (and eventual citizenship) to young unauthorized immigrants who meet certain criteria, whether they currently have DACA or not, and allows their parents to apply for three-year renewable work permits (while preventing those parents from ever becoming citizens through their children). On the enforcement side, it gives about a year’s worth of funding for the border “wall” and eliminates the diversity visa lottery — replacing it instead with merit-based visas for the countries currently eligible for the lottery and with green cards for some immigrants facing the loss of their Temporary Protected Status.
Nevertheless, Democrats received a call from White House staff shortly after the meeting with Schumer on Friday backtracking everything that was discussed.
“As soon as the guest leaves the office, Gen. Kelly calls in the right-wingers and they bat it down and say, ‘You can’t do it.’ We’ll never reach an agreement unless there’s a more open approach at the White House and the president is more constructive.” Durbin said.
“This president is just unable to make a promise and keep it.”
Meanwhile, Republicans and Democrats are in the throes of a blame game. Both sides have ground to stand on. Democrats walked away from a spending bill that reflected their interests because of an unrelated policy issue. And Republicans, led by Trump, have shown no willingness to reach a compromise — let alone clarify the terms of negotiation.
By Saturday evening, with the government still shut down, the Democrats’ lead immigration negotiator couldn’t see a path forward.
That’s not a good sign.