Despite holding little power in Washington, Democrats see themselves as the power brokers in the debate over what to do about so-called Dreamers, confident Republicans will be blamed for deporting the young immigrants if the two parties fail to make a deal.
Democrats said this week they have no plans to negotiate with Republicans, who are in control of the White House and both chambers of Congress. Instead, they are working to add language protecting Dreamers to several must-pass bills.
The bills include those that keep the government running, raise the government's borrowing limit, renew the Children's Health Insurance Programs, which expired last month, and reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration, according to a Senate leadership aide familiar with the situation but not authorized to speak publicly.
“Democrats have made it clear that if the Dream Act is not addressed, if a DACA extension through legislation is not in effect, then they are not going to have Democrats to get over the finish line on anything that they need,” said Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, D-N.M., chairwoman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
Republicans’ grip on the majority could loosen in the 2018 elections. The GOP now has 240 House seats, with 218 needed for a majority. Inside Elections, a nonpartisan newsletter, estimates that 48 Republican and 14 Democratic seats in play next year.
In the Senate, where Democrats need a net gain of three seats for a majority, the party has a rough challenge. Inside Elections sees only two Republican seats as toss-ups, those held by Dean Heller in Nevada and Jeff Flake in Arizona. It estimates four Democratic seats are up for grabs.
The new Democratic immigration strategy comes after the White House released a list of immigration priorities late Sunday that it wants in exchange for protecting Dreamers, essentially backing out of the contours a deal President Donald Trump struck with Democratic leaders last month.
Democrats say Trump agreed to support a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers in exchange for border security, though not a solid U.S.-Mexico wall, at a Sept. 13 dinner at the White House that included no Republican lawmakers, aides say.
“Why at this point negotiate with someone who can't be trusted?” the Senate leadership aide said.
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., even raised the possibility of Democrats even supporting a conservative version of the Dream Act, introduced by Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla. that would include a pathway to citizenship.
Trump is not a reliable negotiator, even for Republicans, Hoyer said, noting that the president agreed to a three-month debt limit extension in September, much to the chagrin of Republicans, who wanted over a year.
“We don't think the wall is a viable option. So we'll see whether that is hardline,” Hoyer said. “The Republicans thought 18-month extension of the debt limit was hardline. It turned out not to be.”
In the House, Democrats are waiting for Speaker Paul Ryan's Republican-only task force on immigration to come back with its recommendations. The speaker's office did not respond to a request for comment on the task force. Republicans are scheduled to hold a closed-door caucus Wednesday morning.
The White House announced last month it will shut down a popular Obama-era program that delayed deportation — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA — for young immigrants brought into the country by their parents. The program would end after a six-month period meant to give Congress time to pass a legislative fix.
Like the 2013 partial government shutdown, Democrats are confident Republicans will shoulder most of the blame if Congress fails to find away to shield the 800,000 immigrants before their work permits begin to expire after March 5.
There is rare agreement among both Democrats and Republicans on the issue of protecting Dreamers. A large percentage of Americans, 79 percent, favor granting Dreamers U.S. citizenship, according to a FOX News Poll. The majority of Democrats, 66 percent, and Republicans, 60 percent want Congress to work on Dreamer legislation.
“I don’t see how we're on the hook for anything,” a Democratic congressional aide said.
The White House Sunday list included proposals already introduced in several bills — eliminating protections for unaccompanied children who are in the country illegally, reducing legal immigration by placing people with certain skills at the front of the line and implementing E-verify, an online system that allows businesses to check immigration status.
Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, said the White House list is a perfect example of why the administration has struggled to pass significant legislation. No one, he said, wants to work with such an extreme proposal.
Even Republican leaders on Capitol Hill fear the contentious proposal could inhibit an opportunity strike a deal and leave the party to deal with the repercussions when lawmakers are home meeting with constituents recesses and during the midterm elections.
“This is something that really has the potential to backfire badly on the Republicans beyond some other things that happened in the past,” a former Republican Senate aide said.
Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, applauded the Trump proposal, but described it as a framework and not a line in the sand. He said it probably needed adjustments before it could pass the Senate. Republicans control 52 of the Senate’s 100 seats, but it usually takes 60 votes to limit debate.
“The real question is what would happen in the Senate,” Meadows said. “You’ve got to have a lot more bipartisan flavor in the Senate to get something to the president’s desk,” he added.
Andrea Drusch, Lesley Clark and William Douglas contributed to this report.