House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) speak at a news conference on Capitol Hill on Dec. 20. (Susan Walsh/AP)
Opinion writer

At the conclusion of a meeting with their GOP counterparts and President Trump, Minority Leader Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Minority House Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) released a joint statement. “We had a positive and productive meeting and all parties have agreed to continue discussing a path forward to quickly resolve all of the issues ahead of us,” it read, about as innocuously as one could write such a thing. Coming after a day in which Michael Wolff’s alarming book set off a war of words between former senior strategist Stephen K. Bannon and Trump, it was a relief to see a least the appearance of normal politics. And as these things go, the less they say publicly, the more we might hope is going on productively behind closed doors.

For Republicans, this is an effort to reach agreement on spending levels. For Democrats, the task is much broader. On the Senate floor earlier in the day Schumer said, “In contrast to a year of chaos and ineffectiveness, a year in which little was accomplished was done for the very wealthy, narrow special interests — I hope this year can be one of bipartisanship focused on improving the stock of the middle class. They’re the ones hurting in America. They’re the ones that need help. They’re the ones who worry about the future of this grand, wonderful country.” He added, “We can start on the budget, with opioids, and veterans’ health care and pensions. With children’s health insurance and disaster aid. And we can resolve the fate of the Dreamers, and say to these hardworking kids that America has a place for them too.”

Given that perspective, the statement from GOP leaders after the White House meeting suggested Democrats may be disappointed. “The American people deserve a government that funds our great military, protects our borders, and leads to a more prosperous future for all. 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 statement said. “It also remains important that members of Congress do not hold funding for our troops hostage for immigration policy. We’ve been clear about these budget priorities from the beginning and hope that further discussions will lead to an agreement soon.”

And that seems to be one major stumbling block — whether to resolve DACA now or later, when Democrats have less leverage. Democrats are remarkably united on their desire to fix DACA now, to the point of withholding votes needed to keep the lights on. In a written statement, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) sent out an email blast vowing, “As a Democrat, I believe we have a responsibility to hard-working, everyday Americans. Not just the rich ones, or the ones who give out big checks, or the ones who call the shots in big corporations. This month, Congress will vote again on a longer-term budget. 60 votes will be needed in the Senate. Democrats have leverage and should draw a clear line in the sand: NO DREAM ACT? NO CHIP? NO DEAL!” (Emphasis in original.)

A source favoring a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) fix, who was involved in the discussion, described two distinct groups of senators, one desirous of a fix and the other stocked with several anti-immigration reform hardliners. The Hill reports that the hardline group headed by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) will be meeting at the White House today. (It includes Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who favors cutting legal immigration.) That group is seeking direction from Trump on an acceptable solution, which is unlikely to be definitive coming from a president who has only the faintest grasp of policy but a willingness to reverse himself at the drop of a hat.

Meanwhile, a House group headed by anti-immigration reform hardliner Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) is likely to come forward with its own plan, giving cover to Republicans nervous about their Trumpian base. What is clear is that, as the source puts it, “All Republicans agree that POTUS has to provide cover for Congressional Leadership to truly move forward on a negotiation with Dems.” And given how erratic, unreliable and ill-informed the president is — and the mix of pro- and anti-immigration advisers around him — it is anyone’s guess what he will decide.

What is key here is the solidarity of Democrats. Their base and nationwide polling show strong support for DACA. Democrats seem prepared to withhold virtually all votes for a budget without a DACA fix, one that does not include funding the wall (Trump’s advisers insist that is essential, but they likely have no idea what he’ll settle for either). Democrats cannot shut down the government, but they can refuse to give up their votes without a DACA fix.

Democrats see this as a win-win. If they hold firm and get their way, the government stays open and they are heroes to their constituents. If they don’t get a DACA deal and Republicans have to come up with a budget on their own, any shutdown will be blamed (Democrats hope) on the party that holds both houses of Congress and the presidency. Alternatively, anger over failure to deliver a DACA fix as Trump promised will only fuel Democrats’ base in the midterms.

As is often the case with this administration and Congress, the GOP seems to have more to lose than Democrats — and less certainty about how they are going to get through this.