When President Donald Trump urged lawmakers to draft a new law that would stop him from deporting young people brought illegally into the country as children, Republicans and Democrats alike eagerly scrambled to make it happen.
Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., held a press conference to tout their “Dream Act” while Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., and Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., began pushing a bill they view as a compromise for conservatives who want to take a harder line against illegal immigrants.
But now – just one week later – much of that momentum is already gone.
The dynamics have completely changed on Capitol Hill. Two devastating storms landed Congress a multi-billion-dollar aid fight. Trump and Congressional leadership want a big tax deal passed into law, and Republicans are still fuming about a separate agreement the president struck with Democratic leaders on the debt ceiling and government spending that hands the opposition party the advantage in negotiations on all of those issues.
Plus, Trump promised that if Congress fails to save the people known as Dreamers, he would readdress their predicament in six months, giving lawmakers even less incentive to get DACA on the docket in 2017.
And in Congress, six months is an eternity.
“I just never shook my eyes away from the shiny objects,” Tillis said when asked about his biggest priorities over the next few months. “We’ve got to work on health care, we’ve got to work on tax reform, we’ve got to work on infrastructure, we’ve got to be prepared to deal with disasters when they come up.”
Absent from Tillis’ list: immigration.
“We’ve got to come up with a solution...but we can’t all the sudden shift all of our focus and resources to this thing that needs to be accomplished because tax reform is that important. Immigration is up there but we can’t shift our focus away from the thing that may get the most headlines over the next week.”
Overhauling the nation’s tax system will require a 2018 budget resolution, as Republicans are pushing to lower personal and corporate taxes through a process called reconciliation, which requires a simple majority in the Senate instead of 60 votes. But they can’t use reconciliation until they pass a budget, since the 2017 budget expires at the end of September.
That gives Congress three months to pass a tax overhaul if lawmakers are going to meet a soft goal set by senior Republicans to get some big legislative priority accomplished by the end of 2017.
“The enemy is time,” said Rep. Mark Meadows, leader of the conservative House Freedom Caucus.
It’s also substance. Conservative Republicans are demanding that significant border security measures are included in any proposal that deals with Dreamers, and House Speaker Paul Ryan is well aware that angry conservatives conspired to oust his predecessor, John Boehner, over immigration.
“Our focus in Congress should be on the border wall, sanctuary cities,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz, who represents a conservative district in the Florida Panhandle. “I’m not a supporter of DACA because when you permanently invite child illegal aliens across the border you create other undesirable conditions.”
Moderate Republicans are backing a number of proposals, including the Dream Act and Tillis’ legislation, which has yet to be officially introduced in the Senate. The Dream Act has dozens of Democratic cosponsors in the House. Tillis’ legislation doesn’t, though both Tillis and Curbelo say they’re in productive talks with Democrats.
“I’m trying to focus on building Republican support, because I think it’s very important for the White House and my colleagues to see that there’s a significant amount of Republican support,” Curbelo said.
Ryan has pledged not to bring legislation to the House floor that doesn’t have the support of a majority of Republicans, and Ira Mehlman a spokesman with the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group that opposes protecting Dreamers, described the Tillis-Curbelo approach as “kind of tokenism” for conservatives who want greater border protections.
Democrats are seeking to attach the Dream Act to any legislative vehicle over the next six months and are intent in forcing Republicans to vote against a proposal that enjoys widespread public support.
“The more exposure the bill gets, the issue gets, and the more uncomfortable we make Republicans by making them vote again, again and again,” said Lynn Tramonte, deputy director of America’s Voice, an immigrant advocacy group.
A solution for Dreamers is also challenged by the White House’s insistence that it come as part of a comprehensive plan. Lawmakers have tried that before, and those Republicans who did were hurt by the effort, including Sen. Marco Rubio.
“It can’t be comprehensive because comprehensive fails every time people try it here, even when you have super majorities,” Tillis said.
Instead, Republicans must focus on taxes.
“All the sudden, it would destroy our credibility if we go ‘no, tax reform’s not the key priority,’” Tillis said.