WASHINGTON -- As House Republican leaders worked to avoid a government shutdown by rounding up votes for a short-term spending bill, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly on Wednesday expressed optimism that Congress will work out a deal to protect participants in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Kelly, while offering no timetable for when an agreement might be reached, gave an upbeat assessment of the state of play in the debate over legal status for illegal aliens who were brought to the United States as children.
"The DACA deal will be worked out, I think, by the United States Congress," he told reporters on Capitol Hill, using the initials of the program initiated during President Barack Obama's tenure. "Both sides of the aisle have agreed to meet in a smaller group and come up with [what] they think is the best DACA deal, and then it'll of course be presented to the president."
Later, the White House expressed support for the short-term spending bill, unveiled late Tuesday by House GOP leadership, and congressional liaison Marc Short said he was optimistic that it would pass. But at least one Senate Republican -- Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. -- complicated the GOP outlook, saying he had informed leaders that he will oppose the bill.
"I'm tired of it. This is the fourth one we've done, and you're killing the military," Graham told reporters.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, meanwhile, said there's "very, very strong" sentiment among Democrats in the chamber to oppose the GOP-drafted legislation to keep the government's doors open.
The comments came as negotiations continued over a possible long-term deal on the deferred-action program. Kelly spoke to reporters after meeting with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, who left the session frustrated by what they described as his inability to spell out specifically what President Donald Trump wants out of the immigration and border security debate.
"They have a disproportionate focus on the border more than anything else," Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said after the meeting.
Talks among a bipartisan group of leaders of the House and Senate convened Wednesday, but participants reported little progress.
"Goodwill but no progress," said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who helped negotiate separate bipartisan legislation on the deferred-action program. He co-wrote the legislation with Graham; Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.; and Cory Gardner, R-Colo., some of the Senate's most dovish Republicans on immigration.
House GOP leaders hoped to hold a vote today on their bill to keep the government open through Feb. 16 while extending a popular children's health program and rolling back several taxes in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Rank-and-file members grudgingly accepted the plan Wednesday.
"Right now, I think it passes," said Republican Study Committee Chairman Mark Walker, R-N.C., putting the odds at "better than 50-50." "I don't think it's overwhelming, but I think it passes."
At the White House, Trump press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders endorsed the plan.
"The president certainly doesn't want a shutdown, and if one occurs I think you only have one place to look, and that's the Democrats," she said during a daily news briefing.
While speaking with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Kelly said Trump's views on immigration have evolved since his presidential campaign. He later made similar remarks on Fox News Channel.
Kelly said on Fox that he told the caucus that "[presidential candidates] all say things during the course of campaigns that may or may not be fully informed."
He said Trump has "very definitely changed his attitude" toward protecting the young immigrants, "and even the wall, once we briefed him." He was referring to Trump's demand for a wall along the southern border with Mexico.
"So he has evolved in the way he's looked at things," Kelly said. "Campaign to governing are two different things, and this president has been very, very flexible in terms of what is within the realms of the possible."
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters Wednesday that Trump hadn't yet articulated what exactly he wants to see in the legislation to avert a government shutdown.
"As soon as we figure out what he is for, then I will be convinced that we would not just be spinning our wheels going to this issue on the floor," McConnell said.
The proposal of a stopgap spending measure underscored Washington's ongoing stalemate over the status of the deferred-action program. Democrats are expected to oppose the measure in the absence of a deal to resolve the conflict.
In the House, the strategy will require votes from the conservative House Freedom Caucus, whose members have sunk previous spending bills by withholding their support. The group has not officially opposed the bill, but several members said they want it to provide longer-term funding for the military.
"I think we should fund the military for the balance of the year and hold the other spending flat. We do that, and I'll probably hold my nose," said Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., who voted against the previous continuing resolution.
Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., another Freedom Caucus member, said he wants a vote on a conservative immigration bill written by Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., as well as a full year of military funding.
"We just keep doing this every month," said Perry, who also opposed the previous stopgap spending measure. "Tell me, show me how voting for this is going to change it so that we don't have to keep doing this."
If Republican leaders can quell dissent among deficit and defense hawks and pass the measure with only GOP votes, House Democrats will lose the leverage they planned to exercise on behalf of deferred-action participants during the current round of negotiations.
Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., a member of the House Armed Services Committee who wants to see an increase in defense spending, said it was "unconscionable" that military funding was being used as a political football by Democrats. But she suggested a shutdown would only play into their hands.
"They just care about scoring political points, and we've got to not let them do that," she said.
Full-year military spending is a nonstarter for Democrats who want a matching increase in nondefense spending. And absent a bipartisan budget agreement, the military spending levels that Republicans favor would force across-the-board spending cuts under a 2011 budget law.
Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., laid the groundwork Wednesday for attacks on Democrats who vote against the funding plan, arguing that failing to pass the bill would hurt the military as well as beneficiaries of the Children's Health Insurance Program, which the bill would extend.
"It's baffling to me that Democrats would be willing to block funding for our military because of unrelated issues," Ryan said at a news conference on Capitol Hill.
Information for this article was contributed by Ed O'Keefe, Mike DeBonis, Erica Werner and Elise Viebeck of The Washington Post; and by Alan Fram, Andrew Taylor, Kevin Freking, Marcy Gordon and Steve Peoples of The Associated Press.
A Section on 01/18/2018
Print Headline: GOP beating bushes to get stopgap votes