The White House kicked off a new round of budget negotiations with Congress on Wednesday, as President Trump told Democrats to abandon a “radical political agenda” on immigration and agree to a no-strings spending bill to keep the government open beyond a mid-January deadline.
Democrats are hoping to include a long list of their priorities in the bill, which is due by Jan. 19: a boost in domestic spending, a pension bailout for some labor union members, more money for the anti-opioid fight and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and a permanent legal solution for illegal immigrant “Dreamers.”
But the White House warned Democrats not to let those demands get in the way of a boost in defense spending, saying they will be blamed if they try to “hold the government hostage in an attempt to advance a radical political agenda.”
“We must fully fund our military and ensure our brave men and women in uniform have the resources they need. We must not let partisan bickering get in the way of the government taking care of them,” Sarah Sanders, Mr. Trump’s press secretary, said.
For now, a deep gulf appears to remain between both sides — though they insisted they’re working in good faith, after a meeting Wednesday afternoon between top White House officials and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
“We had a positive and productive meeting and all parties have agreed to continue discussing a path forward to quickly resolve all of the issues ahead of us,” Mr. Schumer and Mrs. Pelosi said in a joint statement.
The government is operating on a four-week stopgap spending bill approved in December, which both parties said gave them breathing room to try to hammer out a full 2018 spending deal.
The major sticking point is the overall level of discretionary spending, with Republicans looking for a massive defense spending hike and Democrats insisting each dollar for the Pentagon be met with a dollar for domestic needs.
Republicans emerged from Wednesday’s meeting saying all sides “shared their priorities.”
“It is important that we achieve a two-year agreement that funds our troops and provides for our national security and other critical functions of the federal government. It also remains important that members of Congress do not hold funding for our troops hostage for immigration policy,” the Republicans said in a joint statement. “We’ve been clear about these budget priorities from the beginning and hope that further discussions will lead to an agreement soon.”
Democrats are under intense pressure to make sure any bill grants permanent legal status to Dreamers. Their failure to secure a Dreamer agreement in December earned them fierce condemnation from immigrant-rights activists and liberal pressure groups.
Democrats want a “clean” Dream Act, which could grant a full long-term pathway to citizenship to nearly 2 million illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as children.
Republican leaders say they don’t oppose legal status, but they are split over whether that includes full citizenship. GOP leaders are more unified in saying any agreement must also include more security and enforcement, such as funding for Mr. Trump’s proposed border wall and limits to the long chain of family migration that brings most newcomers to the U.S.
Democrats got a boost Wednesday from three former Homeland Security secretaries who wrote a letter saying action on Dreamers needs to happen this month and can’t wait for the March 5 phaseout date set by Mr. Trump.
Democrats Janet Napolitano and Jeh Johnson, and Republican Michael Chertoff said the department will need months to get a program up and running, and to provide certainty for employers who rely on the illegal immigrants.
“The realistic deadline for successfully establishing a Dreamers program in time to prevent large scale loss of work authorization and deportation protection is only weeks away, in the middle of January,” the three insisted in the letter.
Mrs. Sanders said they want to see an agreement done as quickly as possible, but said it must be coupled with “responsible immigration reform.”
“I don’t know that it necessarily has to be done this month,” she said.
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