Trump blasts 'Dicky Durbin' as DACA fight, shutdown deadline loom

In this Jan. 9, 2017, photo, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., left, and Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md. listen as President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with lawmakers on immigration policy in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

President Donald Trump cast further doubt Monday on the prospect of reaching a bipartisan compromise by the end of this week that would ensure protection for hundreds of thousands of young immigrants and avert a government shutdown.

Trump lashed out at Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who has confirmed media reports that the president questioned why the U.S. accepted people from “s***hole countries” in Africa instead of Norwegians in an Oval Office meeting last Thursday.

“Senator Dicky Durbin totally misrepresented what was said at the DACA meeting,” Trump tweeted. “Deals can’t get made when there is no trust! Durbin blew DACA and is hurting our Military.”

The White House has defended Trump’s “tough” language in the meeting but denied he used those exact words. Others who attended have given conflicting accounts. Durbin and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., were presenting the president with a deal they negotiated with four other senators to salvage the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

Instituted by President Barack Obama through executive order, DACA protected undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children by their parents. Republicans challenged the order as unconstitutional, and Trump announced last fall that the program will end in March unless Congress acts.

With the federal government due to run out of money on Friday, Democrats have demanded that the DACA issue be resolved before a funding agreement is reached. Republicans oppose preserving DACA without additional changes to immigration policy, and they want to deal with government funding separately.

Trump has made abundantly clear that Durbin and Graham’s “gang of six” compromise, which Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., had characterized as “the only game in town,” is dead.

Lawmakers who proposed the deal said it touched on all four pillars of immigration policy Trump laid out in a bipartisan meeting last Tuesday. It reportedly would have provided some funding for border fencing and security and made small changes on the diversity lottery and family-based immigration programs, both of which Trump wants to eliminate.

Despite declaring DACA dead on Twitter over the weekend, Trump told reporters on Sunday night that he still wants a deal, but he maintained Democrats do not.

Amid conflicting signals from the president, negotiations continue. Durbin is reportedly now working with Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Rep. Steny Hoyer, d-Md., on a new compromise, but hopes of getting an immigration bill passed by Friday seem pretty thoroughly dashed.

“I honestly don't know what such a deal would even look like, because the president hasn't made clear what objectives he has with such a compromise,” said Democratic strategist Matt McDermott.

Many Republicans support DACA--or at the very least do not want to be held responsible for deporting 800,000 so-called Dreamers--but they do not share the urgency Democrats have ascribed to it at this moment.

“The issue has to be dealt with by March,” said GOP strategist David Payne. “It just doesn’t have to be dealt with this week.”

Immigration is only one of the remaining stumbling blocks in the budget debate. Republican leaders must also satisfy the demands of conservatives in their ranks who want to see higher defense spending, or find enough Democratic votes to circumvent their objections.

GOP defense hawks grumbled through passage of a continuing resolution in December with the expectation that a long-term spending deal would be reached by mid-January. It is unclear if they will support another stopgap measure, which they say makes it difficult for the military to plan.

Prior to Thursday’s White House meeting, members of both parties seemed optimistic about averting a shutdown.

“No one wants to shut down the government,” said Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., last Wednesday. “That’s foolish to think that way, whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican.”

“I don’t think a government shutdown is going to be good for anyone, so we’re working hard on appropriations to get a budget together and get a bill to fund the government,” said Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M.

Still, even then, Democrats and Republicans were angling to place blame in the event things fell apart.

“The president has said sometimes that he wants a shutdown,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., “but I think that upon reflection, he’ll realize that’s no way to run a country, to shut down the services to citizens across this land.”

“Democrats in the Senate are demanding that a DACA deal be included in the funding of the government,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla. “That’s what created the tension today and I’m hoping we’ll be able to get it resolved.”

Payne does not expect a shutdown this week, but he does expect a tough fight for leaders in both parties against their own extreme flanks in order to avert one.

“It's the folks on the right and left wings that are holding all the cards,” he said. “The time to exact concessions and enact policy priorities has arrived. It's a new legislative year, an election year in which you're trying to score points for your team.”

Polling suggests Democrats have a stronger hand with the public right now, but experts doubt either side would come out ahead if the federal government were to grind to a halt.

“The price is so high, maybe for both sides, having this thing end in a government shutdown, that you would hope there’d be enough incentive to come back to the table,” said Robert Mann, a professor of political science at Louisiana State University and former Senate press secretary.

Looking tough on the immigration issue may help both parties a bit with their bases, but it would mostly just harden the positions those voters already have, not change anyone’s minds.

“Can the situation for the Republicans get any worse than it is now?” Mann said. “Probably so, but everybody who despises Donald Trump has had plenty of reason to reach that position already.”

According to McDermott, a shutdown would send a message to voters about the Republican majority’s disarray that could help Democrats in the end.

“No one benefits from a federal government shutdown,” he said. “But it'll be the clearest showcase yet of Donald Trump's inability to effectively govern, and Republicans' inability to simply pass an immigration compromise that protects Dreamers and is supported by the overwhelming majority of voters.”

The last time a funding standoff approached in December, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found 31 percent of Americans would have blamed congressional Republicans, 18 percent would have blamed Trump, and 29 percent would have blamed Democrats.

Surveys have also found the public largely supports preserving the DACA program. In the December NBC/WSJ poll, 62 percent said Congress should save it, up from 53 percent in September, and 19 percent said the program should end.

A CBS News poll conducted last week found 70 percent of Americans support DACA, including a slight majority of Trump supporters. Most of Trump’s supporters favored a deal to save DACA in exchange for wall funding, but voters who firmly oppose Trump rejected that compromise. A Quinnipiac University poll released last week similarly found widespread support, 79 percent, for allowing Dreamers to stay in the U.S. and become citizens. Only 11 percent favored kicking them out.

It is too soon to draw conclusions about how voters reacted to Trump’s reported vulgar comments last week, but initial public opinion data may embolden Democrats. CBS found 76 percent of American considered his remarks inappropriate, including almost all Democrats, 45 percent of Republicans and nearly 80 percent of independents.

“The Democrats seem to have made a calculation that Trump’s going to get all or most of the blame if there’s a shutdown,” Mann said.

That is indeed what McDermott predicts.

“Republicans control the White House and both chambers of Congress,” he said. “If Republicans seriously believe that voters will blame Democrats for a government shutdown, they are suffering from a severe case of denial.”

However, Payne warned Democrats would be held responsible if the government shuts down over DACA because they would be the ones filibustering the budget.

“If there is a shutdown due to a filibuster by Democratic senators, it will look like they're blocking the budget and shutting down the government because they didn't get everything they wanted in the officially unrelated immigration policy debate,” he said.

Democrats have taken one issue, federal spending, that needs to be dealt with this week, and tied it to another, DACA, that does not need to be resolved for six weeks. On one hand, Payne suggested that makes Democrats look like they have no budget priorities, but on the other, DACA is one of the few things they have leverage to fight for in Republican-controlled Washington.

“It is ‘game on’ right now,” he said. “There are no other battlefields for the Democrats to fight on.”

Democrats are staring down a historically unpopular president in defense of an overwhelmingly popular program that their base is clamoring for a fight over in the wake of racial remarks by the president that even some Republicans recoiled from.

“If you were going to make that stand, Trump has by what he said last week made it easier for you to do it and I think clarified the issue in a way it wasn’t a week ago,” Mann said.

Republicans have already telegraphed how they would spin a shutdown.

“So Democrats are now threatening to shut down the government if they don't get amnesty for millions of illegal immigrants,” Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark, tweeted Sunday. “Let's see how that works out for them, especially in places like WV, IN, MO, ND, & MT.”

If they allow funding for social programs, disaster relief, and children’s health care to lapse to defend Dreamers, Democrats open themselves up to accusations that they put the needs of undocumented immigrants before those of American citizens.

“The message you saw from Tom Cotton is going to become a battle cry across the board in these statewide races,” Payne said.

While Democrats in the House are eying big gains in the midterms in November, several Senate Democrats have an uphill battle to retain their seats in states where Trump won in 2016.

Though he believes a shutdown could backfire on Democrats, Payne emphasized that Republicans know how popular DACA is and how precarious ending it could be. They must resolve the issue without looking heartless and tone-deaf if they want voters to care about their economic agenda in November.

“The only way you accrue the benefits of the booming economy is if folks like you. The DACA issue puts them on dangerous ground,” he said.

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