Immigration Debate Complicates Budget Talks

By Kristina PetersonFeaturesDow Jones Newswires

Congressional leaders emerged Wednesday from a meeting with White House officials without a budget deal, as Democrats intensified their push to reach an immigration agreement as part of the negotiations.

Lawmakers returning to Washington from their holiday break have less than three weeks before the government's current funding expires at 12:01 a.m. on Jan. 20. The path to keeping the government funded likely hinges on resolving many thorny issues that Congress has been postponing.

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The top four congressional leaders met with senior White House officials Wednesday afternoon. The talks were complicated, they indicated, by a debate over how to reach a deal aimed at aiding young undocumented immigrants and tightening border security.

The tenor of the meeting was "surprisingly good," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) told senior Republicans, Sen. John Cornyn (R., Texas) said.

A group of Senate Republicans planned to meet Thursday with President Donald Trump to discuss immigration, Mr. Cornyn said. The GOP president's support is seen as key to reaching an immigration agreement.

"It is important that we achieve a two-year agreement that funds our troops and provides for our national security and other critical functions of the federal government," the White House, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) and Mr. McConnell said in a joint statement after the meeting.

The statement also issued a warning to the Democrats: "It also remains important that members of Congress do not hold funding for our troops hostage for immigration policy."

Democrats signaled this week that they intend to use their leverage in budget negotiations to demand legal protections for the so-called Dreamers, young people living in the U.S. illegally who were brought here as children.

Democratic votes will be needed to pass the spending bill in the Senate, where 60 votes are required to clear procedural hurdles. The GOP holds 51 seats in the Senate.

Mr. Trump ended the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, shielding them from deportation in September, but he gave Congress six months to pass legislation before protections begin to expire.

"It's time that Congress pass DACA protections into law and fix this once and for all," said Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, on Wednesday.

Mr. Schumer said Democrats were willing to support some new measures to tighten border security along with measures legalizing the Dreamers, but drew the line at a physical wall along the length of the border with Mexico.

"If our Republican colleagues and the president engage in good faith in that negotiation -- without unreasonable demands like the absurdly expensive and ineffective border wall, that publicly many Republicans oppose and privately many more do -- I do not doubt that we can reach an agreement on DACA that's acceptable to both sides," he said.

Democratic leaders haven't said whether they would oppose a spending bill later this month, setting off a partial government shutdown, if no immigration agreement can be reached. But their focus on Dreamers has sharpened, as immigration activists criticized them for supporting a stopgap spending bill last month without having resolved the immigration fight.

GOP and Democratic leaders haven't yet reached an agreement on where to set overall spending levels for the next two years. Both parties want to increase spending for the military, but Democrats want to see that matched with an equal increase for nonmilitary spending, a concept they call parity in spending.

"We need to set aside the arbitrary notion that new defense spending be matched equally by new nondefense spending," Mr. McConnell said on the Senate floor Wednesday. "There is no reason why funding for our national security and our service members should be limited by an arbitrary political formula that bears no relationship to actual need."

Democrats said the increase in nondefense spending is necessary for other critical needs, including combating the opioid epidemic, health-care research and diplomacy.

Write to Kristina Peterson at kristina.peterson@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

January 03, 2018 19:32 ET (00:32 GMT)