A long-running fight over immigration threatens to spark a government shutdown later this month and add to Republicans' political and policy challenges moving forward.
GOP lawmakers are divided over when to tackle one of the most inflammatory issues to their voters: how to handle the fate of so-called Dreamers, young people brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents.
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President Donald Trump in September ended an Obama-era program shielding them from deportation, with the protections beginning to expire in early March. That gave Congress six months to pass legislation protecting them. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) are expected to meet with Mr. Trump and GOP leaders on Thursday to discuss year-end legislation.
Many conservatives insist that, if Congress is to protect Dreamers, it also must approve tougher enforcement measures opposed by Democrats, such as funding for a border wall with Mexico or tougher rules for people seeking to immigrate to the U.S.
But an increasing number of Republicans, including many facing tough re-election campaigns next year, are voicing support for legislation that would protect the Dreamers without making those demands. They are concerned that a failure to act now could damage their ability to hold their House majority in next year's midterm elections.
On Tuesday, 34 House Republicans, including 12 representing districts Democrat Hillary Clinton won in last year's presidential election, signed a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) urging him to bring legislation to the floor this year preventing the Dreamers' deportation.
"I'm highly confident we'll get it resolved because the politics of not dealing with these kids in a fair fashion would be devastating," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) said Wednesday. "It would destroy our ability, particularly with the Hispanic community, to grow."
According to an October Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, more than seven in 10 Hispanic adults disapprove of Mr. Trump's job performance, with 22% approving.
Mr. Ryan is looking to push the matter into next year, saying Congress has until March. He says he doesn't intend to include any immigration measures in the spending bills likely to come up on Capitol Hill this month.
The Republican leadership is reluctant to pair the two because, in part, that would give Democrats the opportunity to use the leverage they have over the spending bills. Their votes are needed to pass budgetary legislation in the Senate and very likely in the House. Spending bills need 60 votes to clear the Senate, where Republicans only hold 52 seats
Immigrant-rights advocates are pushing hard for a resolution this year. That is also the message from such pro-immigration advocates as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, whose stances more often align with Republicans.
"We are passionate about this issue because it is a matter of principle and fairness," Chamber President Tom Donohue wrote this week.
The government's current funding expires at 12:01 a.m. Saturday. Lawmakers are expected to pass a two-week patch this week keeping it running through Dec. 22, although defections from conservative House Republicans could scramble that plan.
That is setting up a Christmastime showdown. Some Democrats say they won't pass any year-end spending bill that doesn't provide certainty for the young immigrants, though Democratic leaders haven't taken that stance. GOP leaders may try to approve another short-term bill funding the government into January but may not have the votes for that.
Advocates say they are confident Democrats will fight for Dreamers, but say one wild card is Mr. Trump, who may see a government shutdown as politically helpful to his relationship with the core supporters who sent him to Washington to shake things up.
Congressional Republicans have said there won't be a shutdown. On Wednesday, though, Mr. Trump floated that possibility. At a cabinet meeting, he said Democrats would be responsible for a shutdown if they insisted on immigration measures he viewed as too lax.
"The Democrats maybe will want to shut down the country because they want people flowing into our country, and I want people coming into our country but I want to vet those people," Mr. Trump said.
Mr. Graham said he is urging Mr. Trump to strike a Dreamer deal in exchange for tighter border security and new limits on visas available to family members of immigrants. Most Democrats expect border security to be part of an agreement, but they are resisting other GOP demands, such as tougher workplace enforcement.
Many Republicans are already nervous that Mr. Trump's unpopularity among independents and swing voters could hurt them next year at the ballot box. Democrats need to flip 24 seats to take control of the House. Twenty-three Republicans hold seats won by Mrs. Clinton, and a significant handful of them retiring.
GOP leaders' delay in tackling the Dreamer issue has some worried that the party is alienating Hispanic voters.
"We have done such a poor job with that population. We could basically erase the border and [Hispanics would] still be like 'Republicans are bad people,'" said Rep. Mark Amodei (R., Nev.), who said he was frustrated that GOP leaders haven't indicated any plans to consider immigration legislation.
"Tell me what the political genius in that is," he said. "It's lost on me."
--Louise Radnofsky contributed to this article.
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(END) Dow Jones Newswires
December 07, 2017 05:44 ET (10:44 GMT)