Senate Democrats are willing to drop their demand that relief for Dreamers be tied to any long-term budget agreement — a potential breakthrough on spending talks, but one that could face opposition from their House counterparts.
The shift comes in response to the deal struck between Senate leaders Monday to reopen the government and begin debate on an immigration bill next month. Meanwhile, budget negotiators are expressing optimism that a two-year agreement to lift stiff caps on defense and domestic spending is increasingly within reach.

You can look at this two ways: as the continuing retreat from their rhetoric on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (a function of reluctant moderates and simple math) or, alternatively, a decision that DACA can be wrapped around the necks of Republicans in the midterms.

Decoupling immigration from the budget is possible now that — if they can believe him — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has promised to put DACA on the floor. DACA defenders think that once it gets to the floor, a coalition of all Democrats and some moderate Republicans will have the numbers to reject the extremist stances of the White House (e.g. eliminating family reunification) and its allies such as Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who favors the economically disastrous bill to cut legal immigration in half. There are reportedly at least 30 senators working now on a bipartisan basis. If they can agree, they can ignore the White House, pass a middle-of-the-road DACA bill and go after Republican opponents (Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada, if he votes against it) in the midterms. It will be interesting, indeed, to see someone such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) run on deporting “dreamers” en masse from Texas universities and workplaces. His worst nightmare would be getting caught between the right-wing base and suburban voters who look upon deportation of “dreamers” as inhumane.

If a bill clears the Senate, the problem becomes the House, of course. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) is quite unlikely to cross his anti-immigrant Freedom Caucus and put a reasonable bill on the floor. Despite his crocodile tears for dreamers, time and again Ryan has signed on with the plan to protect the White House’s right flank at all costs rather than look for broad bipartisan consensus. In all likelihood, the House won’t take up a DACA bill that passes the Senate or will come out with a bill so ludicrous as to prevent reconciliation with the Senate bill.

And then? The irony here is that Republicans have made their least defensible, their cruelest stance — deport the dreamers — the centerpiece of their immigration approach and one of the key issues in the 2018 midterms. They want to run on a position that 80 percent to 90 percent of voters reject, an issue that will help Democrats drive turnout in places such as Texas, California and Florida. Democrats should be delighted to engage. They can rightly argue that the scare-mongering racist ads about murderers coming over the border have nothing to do with the dreamers; the ads do, however, have everything to do with the nasty strain of xenophobia Trump articulated in his “shithole” remarks. If Democrats cannot use an issue (legalize dreamers) with 80 percent to 90 percent approval to their advantage in a slew of House races, they might want to close up shop. (Moreover, after the March deadline, Trump will either face the wrath of his base by extending DACA protections or inflame the country with images of family dissolution, deportation and hardship.)

Sound familiar? This was in essence what Republicans did in 2013-2014. They found out they couldn’t keep the government closed to get repeal of Obamacare; they could, however, use it to wipe out Democrats in the midterms the following year. In 2014, Republicans picked up nine Senate seats and 13 House seats (they already had picked up six Senate seats and 63 House seats in 2010). The way you win on the contentious issues is to win the majorities, forcing the president to back down or veto popular legislation. It’s near-impossible to win on an issue with a sharp partisan divide when you simply don’t have the votes or control of the calendar.

In sum, whether out of necessity or design, Democrats are looking to gain ground on domestic spending and get a dreamer bill out of the Senate. They’ll put a full-court press on the House, but they’re ready for Ryan and the White House to betray the dreamers, as Democrats always suspected they would. Then DACA becomes one of the top issues for 2018 — one that would appeal to younger, nonwhite voters whose turnout may decide control of the House and maybe even the Senate. This might make a whole lot more sense than the spirited but ultimately futile shutdown.

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