A top Senate Democrat said Wednesday that he will vote against any spending bill in the coming weeks if Congress has failed to address the fate of young immigrants — raising the stakes in a looming showdown with the White House and Republicans over a potential government shutdown.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), the second-ranking Senate Democrat and a lead negotiator on spending matters, said he is encouraging his colleagues to join him in blocking spending legislation if the legal status of "dreamers" isn't resolved. President Trump announced in September that he will end the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in early March, putting hundreds of thousands of dreamers — immigrants brought to the United States as children — at risk of deportation early next year.
"That's my position. There's too much at stake here. We can't let this to slip into January, February with a March 5 deadline. It should be done, it can be done, easily, simply and quickly," Durbin said in an interview.
Durbin has repeatedly said in recent months that Congress needs to resolve the status of dreamers by the end of the year, but he is now the highest-ranking Democratic senator to raise the specter of a government shutdown sparked by an impasse over immigration.
For months, Republicans have said the fate of dreamers can only be resolved if new border security measures are also enacted. In the interview, Durbin faulted Republicans for failing to present viable border security options, saying instead they continue to present a laundry list of conservative proposals, including plans to rewrite the definition of asylum seekers.
"I do believe in the last few days that more Republicans believe us," Durbin said, because Democrats have made clear addressing the fate of dreamers is "a must-pass item."
"I don't want a shutdown. I didn't come here to shut down anything," he added. "What I want to do is get this done and I think people in good faith can get it done."
By vowing to withhold his support for a spending measure absent an immigration deal, Durbin is in a camp with four other Democratic senators, all of whom are potential presidential hopefuls, and dozens of House Democrats.
His posture has the potential to deepen an emerging rift among congressional Democrats, since he is going further than other top leaders. Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have vowed to use all avenues to strike a deal for dreamers as part of a spending bill, without issuing the same explicit threat as Durbin, as they confront divisions in the the rank and file. The majority of Senate Democrats have not made the same threat as Durbin, while many believe a majority of House Democrats agree with him.
Facing a Dec. 8 deadline for when government funding will run out, Republicans and Democrats are deadlocked on how much money the federal government should spend in the coming years and over how to settle several pressing concerns regarding immigration, health care and disaster aid for storm-ravaged states.
Republicans are hoping to reach an agreement on a stopgap bill that extends government funding into 2018 to buy more time for negotiations, but they have conceded they will probably need Democratic votes to help pass any spending bill because of potential opposition from conservatives in the House and because Senate Democrats can filibuster spending legislation.
With just over a week until the deadline, GOP leaders are set to meet on Thursday to discuss options on how to proceed, multiple aides said. They are mulling one or two stopgap bills that could stretch into January, said the aides, who were granted anonymity to speak frankly about the discussions. It remains unclear whether such stopgaps would address immigration, but so far, Republican leaders have been resistant to pairing the issues.
"I haven't heard the end date, but it sounds like there will be some short-term" spending bill, said Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.), the second-ranking Republican senator. Cornyn has resisted the idea of joining an immigration deal to a spending plan, preferring instead to deal with the two issues separately.
But Durbin's comments signaled that the Democratic position on immigration is hardening. He is a longtime advocate for overhauling immigration laws and top sponsor of the Dream Act, a bipartisan bill that he said he wants included in the final spending agreement.
The bill would permit more than 780,000 eligible immigrants brought to the United States as young children to begin the process of applying for U.S. citizenship. The measure has four GOP co-sponsors in the Senate and is supported by a handful of House Republicans. Two other bipartisan Senate bills and similar legislation in the House, all fronted by GOP lawmakers, would establish rules for citizenship for eligible dreamers.
"I'll put my cards on the table — this is an easy problem to solve," Durbin said.
Durbin's position is shared by at least four members of his caucus — Sens. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
Dozens of House Democrats, led by members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, are in agreement with the five senators and Durbin said, "I've encouraged them to take a strong position on this and to hold it."
But a hard-line on immigration in spending talks with Trump and the GOP could put at risk Democrats more worried about the practical and political consequences of a shutdown. Ten Senate Democrats face reelection next year in states that Trump won handily in 2016 and that have smaller immigrant populations.
Durbin acknowledged the political challenges, but said the fate of dreamers is a top-of-mind concern for Democrats and a regular topic of discussion in weekly planning and lunch meetings.
He added that in discussions with Trump and top Republicans, Schumer "has never spoken about the endgame negotiation without putting DACA and dreamers in the front of the pack" amid pressing health-care issues and funding for storm-ravaged states.
Lawmakers in both parties are uncertain how extensively Trump will be involved in crafting the final product. Democratic leaders on Tuesday canceled a meeting with Trump to discuss spending levels and other issues after he launched preemptive attacks against them on social media.
"I think it's going to depend on the budget agreement that is reached on a bicameral, bipartisan basis more than the administration coming up with a plan, but I really don't know," said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a senior member of the Appropriations Committee.