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Republicans secured Jeff Flake’s vote on the tax bill with a vague agreement to work on DACA

Flake didn’t get much in exchange for his vote.

U.S. Senate Debates Tax Reform Bill Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Until early Friday afternoon, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), was one of two key holdouts on the Republican tax plan, due to his concerns that steep corporate and individual tax cuts in the bill would add $1 trillion to the national debt.

But shortly after noon, Flake assured Senate leadership he would vote “yes” on taxes after leadership offered him two concessions. One was an agreement to phase out business expensing, a measure allowing businesses to write off the cost of new equipment, which Flake called an “$85 billion budget gimmick.”

The other was an agreement from the White House and Senate leaders to negotiate on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, an Obama-era program shielding about 800,000 young unauthorized immigrants brought to the United States as children from deportation.

In exchange for his vote, Flake was promised nothing more than a seat at the table — not any specific policy concessions or a timeline for when the agreement might happen.

“Giving protections for those kids — that’s what I hope comes out of it,” Flake told Vox. “Obviously they can’t commit to do that, but they’ve committed to move forward with me and work with me on that.”

But he also admitted the timeline on those negotiations is uncertain, saying that Congress can’t do a deal under budget reconciliation but that he hope it happens before the end of the year.

“[President Trump] has expressed an interest in getting this done; obviously we’ve got a March deadline and so it has to be done,” he said. “I would just like to get it done before the end of the year. You shouldn’t make those kids wait with that kind of uncertainty.”

Trump kicked a decision on DACA to Congress a few months ago, when the White House said it would end the program, meaning immigrants protected by the program would be eligible for deportation once their current permits expire. Since then, Trump has asked for a crackdown on many other immigrants in exchange for any deal to protect DACA recipients.

Earlier on Friday, as White House aide Marc Short left a tax meeting with senators, he laughed when a reporter asked if he thought a DACA deal could be finished by the end of the year.

“No, we’re getting taxes done,” Short said. “I think what [Flake] was articulating is an agreement to be part of the conversation, which we are glad to be a part of.”

Flake wants to secure protections for the young unauthorized immigrants known as DREAMers in part to give them security and extra protections. But he also laid out an economic argument for extending the program, saying that as Republicans are poised to pass tax reform, they need young immigrants to help bolster the American workforce and boost the economy.

“Tying it to the relevance of this debate we’re having on tax, we’ve got a good regulatory environment, better than we’ve had,” Flake said. “Now we’re getting a better tax environment. We can’t have productivity gains to make up the rest of the growth; we’ve got to have a workforce. And if you can’t deal with the easiest part of immigration reform, DACA, you’ll never deal with the other things. So we’ve got to deal with DACA.”

As Congress gets to work on a spending bill next week, immigration will play a big role

There’s been little attempt to pass bipartisan legislation so far in Congress this year, but immigration and DACA may be one issue on which Republicans and Democrats can hammer out a deal. But Congress first must avert a government shutdown.

The next big congressional fight is a federal spending bill next week. That bill needs 60 votes to overcome a filibuster and pass, meaning Democrats will have much more leverage this time around.

Democrats have a lot to ask for. Passing the DREAM Act, which would give immigrants protected by DACA a path to citizenship, is one. So are measures to stabilize Obamacare’s health insurance exchanges, and to fund the now-lapsed federal Children’s Health Insurance Program. So far Democrats are optimistic, but there are still a lot of details to be worked out — including what Republicans would want in exchange for a deal to protect DACA recipients.

Other Democratic senators Vox interviewed on Friday said these priorities will remain consistent going into the vote on the spending bill next week. Senators also said they will fight to make sure the government remains open, as a possible government shutdown looms.

“We have strong priorities, and the priorities include keeping the government open,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA). “I’ve seen the president tweet that maybe there’s a good government shutdown, or tell friends that a shutdown would be good for him. We feel differently about it on the Democratic side, and we’re going to insist on priorities and feel like we have good leverage to be able to do it.”

Kaine said he wasn’t surprised at Flake’s move toward bipartisanship on DACA, and he and other Democratic senators said they believe both parties can come to a consensus on an immigration deal before the new year.

“We have to keep the government open, and as part of that task, we should enable the DREAMers to stay in this country,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT). “What’s perplexing to me is why we haven’t reached a solution yet, because everybody who approaches this issue with any rational or sane outlook thinks we need to find a path for them to stay in this country.”

Blumenthal said he was “hopeful” Democrats and Republicans could come to a consensus on immigration and health care, and avoid a shutdown in the process.

“My Republican colleagues agree we need a solution, so I think that one is certainly possible and we’ll find it,” he said.

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