WASHINGTON — A promised year-end deal to protect the young immigrants known as "Dreamers" from deportation collapsed Wednesday as Republicans in Congress — fresh off passage of their tax plan — prepared to punt nearly all remaining must-do agenda items into the new year.
Congressional leaders still hope that before leaving town this week, they can pass an $81 billion disaster-relief package with recovery funds for California wildfires and Gulf Coast states hit during the devastating hurricane season. But passage even of that relatively popular measure remained in doubt as conservatives balked at the price tag.
Rather than finish the year wrapping up the legislative agenda, the GOP majorities in the House and Senate struggled over their next steps.
Congressional leaders had hoped to extend the Children's Health Insurance Program, known as CHIP, which provides insurance for some 9 million children nationwide, and pass measures to stabilize the Affordable Care Act. Instead, they appeared resigned by the end of the day to simply avoiding a government shutdown Friday by extending into mid-January the deadline for passing money bills and picking up the legislative battles in 2018.
For Dreamers, young immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children, many of whom have been protesting for weeks at the Capitol, Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the chamber's second-ranking Democrat, had a simple message: "I'm sorry."
"We have a long way to go," said Durbin, who has led efforts to pass legislation known as the DREAM Act in the Senate. "I'm sorry that what we thought would be a moment and an opportunity did not happen.
"At this point, it looks unlikely."
Nearly 800,000 immigrants who were protected under former President Barack Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals order are at risk of deportation now that President Donald Trump has announced the end of the program in March. More than 1,000 immigrant advocates arrived in Washington this week pleading with lawmakers to negotiate a legislative solution before leaving town for the Christmas holiday, a deadline for action that Democratic leaders had insisted on earlier this year.
Durbin and others continued to hold out hope that Congress could act on a version of the DREAM Act in January. At least one Republican who has been involved in negotiations on the issue, Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, predicted a deal still was at hand.
"Bipartisan #DACA bill will be on the Senate floor in January," he tweeted.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., pledged Wednesday he would bring a bill to the Senate floor for a vote that included a DACA fix and border security measures if negotiators can "develop a compromise that can be widely supported by both political parties" by the end of January — a promise that leaves him considerable flexibility.
Dreamer advocates said they would persist, despite their disappointment.
"We have never been so close to protection as we are right now," said Greisa Martinez Rosas, 29, the policy director at United We Dream, an immigration advocacy organization. "Whether it's today or it's January, immigrant young people are going to continue to grow our base and fight back. It's about our lives."
The Dreamers have a broad range of allies. Deep-pocketed Republican donors in the business world, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have urged Congress to pass a bill. Charles Koch, the influential conservative billionaire, joined with Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook this week to write an op-ed supporting the young immigrants.
But negotiations to reach a deal have soured in recent days, according to officials involved in the talks. In a meeting with key senators, White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly outlined a wish list of immigration law changes Trump wanted in exchange for backing a DACA replacement. It included strict limits on new arrivals and went beyond the border security measures both sides already largely had agreed to.
Conservative Republicans who back cuts in legal immigration, including Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., joined the talks as the two sides moved further apart. The group met again Wednesday.
Dreamer advocates have pressured Democrats to insist on a bill to resolve the status of the young immigrants even at the price of blocking money for federal agencies and provoking a partial government shutdown.
Democrats, although they are the minority party in both houses, have leverage because many conservative Republicans in the House refuse to vote for spending bills, meaning GOP leaders must rely on Democrats to pass them. In the Senate, spending bills require 60 votes, so the GOP needs the cooperation of at least eight Democrats.
But although some Democrats said they would refuse to vote for any spending bill that did not solve the DACA issue, many moderates, especially in the Senate, made clear they were not willing to shut down the government over the issue, saying they still could resolve it next month.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who has been under pressure from Dreamers to deliver, blamed Republicans for spending so much time and effort on their tax plan that other issues have been left undone.
"We will get it done," she told reporters. "It's shameful that we didn't, because they've been too busy ransacking the middle class, robbing the children's future and rewarding the rich."
Meantime, Republicans scrambled to figure out a way forward on the spending and disaster bills, huddling in a basement strategy session late into the evening after celebrating passage of the tax bill at the White House.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., was hoping enough Democrats would join Republicans to approve disaster funds, which include $4.4 billion for California in the aftermath of wildfires.
"If you look what's in (it) for California, it's very strong," he told reporters.
The spending bill probably would be voted on separately from the disaster bill. It would provide a simple continuation of funds for the next few weeks, without the beefed-up Defense money Republicans wanted or the policy measures Democrats pushed for, including renewal of CHIP.
Also set aside, for now, were votes on measures to stabilize Obamacare sought by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, as part of negotiations for her support on the tax bill.
Collins, however, said House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., called her Wednesday and told her the House "remains committed to passing legislation to provide for high-risk pools and other reinsurance mechanisms similar to the bipartisan legislation I have introduced."