The government-shutdown fight is about to get nasty over Democrats’ key issue

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  • The government will shut down if Congress does not pass a funding bill by January 19.
  • Given the dynamics around the shutdown, Democrats appear to have some leverage in adding their legislative priorities to the funding bill.
  • One issue, a program for young immigrants, is likely to be the biggest sticking point in the negotiations.

Democrats, without control of either chamber of Congress, are aiming to secure key legislative priorities in the funding bill that must pass by January 19 to avoid a government shutdown.

Democratic leaders are eyeing the coming fight as a way to include key agenda items on immigration and healthcare. But with just over two weeks before the deadline, the battle over the issues could turn volatile.

Democrats’ to-do list: DACA, CHIP, and disaster funding

The flash point in the funding-bill fight is a Democratic demand that the bill include an equal-sized funding increase in defense and non-defense spending.

Democrats have three additional goals: the codification of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) immigration program, extension of funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and more funding for areas affected by natural disasters.

“We can start on the budget, with opioids, and veterans’ healthcare and pensions,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Wednesday. “With Children’s Health Insurance and disaster aid. And we can resolve the fate of the Dreamers, and say to these hardworking kids that America has a place for them too.”

Given their position, even GOP Sen. John Cornyn -the second-highest ranking Republican senator – acknowledged that the Democrats believe they have power in the discussions.

“I think they think their leverage has increased by including this in an omnibus discussion, including their hopes to pass DACA,” Cornyn told Business Insider.

Each of the issues will face pushback from Republicans, who also want to add on their own separate priorities to the funding bill.

Even the least controversial Democrat demand of disaster funding faced pushback in 2017, with many Republicans in the House voting against various packages for hurricane and wildfire relief.

And CHIP, which provides health coverage for young children and pregnant women, was granted a short-term reprieve along with the government funding extension. But there remains a debate over its long-term future.

Democrats want to program’s funding to be extended in clean fashion, while Republicans are pushing for some offsetting cuts to other healthcare programs.

Democrats have a bit more leverage this time

The government will run out of funding if no bill is passed by January 19 to extend that deadline, which would result in a partial shutdown of the federal government. While Congress has punted the shutdown deadline in recent months – in September and twice in December – many analysts believe the January deadline may be different.

In September, the funding legislation was attached to a debt ceiling increase. In December, the punt came right before the Christmas deadline. This time, more hardline members of either party may be more willing to let funding lapse to achieve legislative goals.

Republicans may not be able to count on votes from conservatives like the Freedom Caucus in the House or Sen. Rand Paul, giving Democrats leverage in the negotiations.

“I think they think their leverage has increased by including this in an omnibus discussion, including their hopes to pass DACA,” Sen. John Cornyn, the second-ranking Republican in the chamber, told Business Insider.

But it’s not a slam dunk

Democrats will face their toughest odds on codifying DACA, the President Barack Obama-era immigration program that shields from deportation over 700,000 unauthorized immigrants who entered the US as minors.

President Donald Trump gave a six-month deadline to Congress to codify the program when his administration announced plans to dismantle it in September.

Many GOP members have blasted the program and would reject any funding bill that includes a DACA fix, but some Senate Republicans have expressed interest at reaching a solution before the March deadline.

Most Republicans, however, want the issue addressed – but not as part of a funding bill.

“I’d like to do it in January. We know what the deal is going to look like: border security, DREAM Act, get rid of the diversity lottery,” GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham told Business Insider. “We know what it’s gonna look like, we just need to do it.”

Graham said the DACA fix and the GOP’s desire for increased border security may come in different bills.

“You’re not going to do comprehensive reform so you’ll have to break it up in two tranches,” he said.

After a meeting that included congressional leaders from both parties and White House officials, Republicans said “immigration policy” would not be part of the funding deal.

“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,” read the joint statement from the White House, House Speaker Paul Ryan, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “It also remains important that members of Congress do not hold funding for our troops hostage for immigration policy.”

Democrats, on the other hand, believe any standalone DACA bill would be dead on arrival in the House so including it in the funding bill is essential.

“In the House, a freestanding DACA bill, well you know what it looks like over there and that’s why I think that we need to be very open to however way we can accomplish this,” said Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono told Business Insider.

Exactly how hard Democrats will fight for the inclusion of DACA remains unclear. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer did not mention it specifically in a statement after the meeting.