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The US Congress reaching a bipartisan deal shielding hundreds of thousands of so-called Dreamers from deportation and averting a looming government shutdown promised to be tough, but doable. Then two things happened.
Up until 48 hours ago, the basic battle lines drawn by Republicans and Democrats in Congress around the fate of DACA, an Obama-era program rescinded by the Trump administration that protects hundreds of thousands of young immigrants who were brought to the US by their parents illegally years ago, looked something like this:
Democrats as their key goal wanted to get a quick and permanent fix for those covered by DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and were intent on using an upcoming government funding deadline as leverage to get a deal passed. Any bill, said the Democrats, aimed at keeping much of the government working beyond January 19, when current funding runs out, would also have to solve the issue of those people formerly shielded by DACA.
Republicans, however, wanted to decouple those issues, pass their key goal; a clean budget bill, and deal with DACA separately. In addition, they knew they also had to finangle a way to somehow include President Donald Trump's border wall project in the funding bill, even though many Republican legislators remain deeply skeptical of, or outright oppose, allocating $18 billion (€15 billion) to the president's signature campaign promise.
Trump and the courts
While these general guidelines foreshadowed difficult negotiations — lawmakers had already put the issue aside once once before the holiday break in December — it ultimately looked doable.
But then two things happened that seem to be occurring often in Trump-era Washington. The president inserted himself fully into the debate and the courts intervened.
First, Trump, in an unusual move, allowed the media to be present for a good part of the talks he had scheduled with Congressional Republicans and Democrats in the White House about DACA and the budget.
The outcome of the meeting lead by the president, who considers himself a savvy negotiator, was best summed up by Richard Durbin, a Democrat senator from Illinois who attended the gathering: "My head is spinning with all the things that were said by the president and others in that room in the course of an hour-and-a-half."
Asked about Trump's input in the ongoing negotiations, Norman Ornstein, a Congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), said that "he always complicates things because he has no clue what the policies are or even what he supports on his own."
Ornstein was referring to a decision made by the president that astonished his fellow Republicans: inserting comprehensive immigration reform, an elusive legislative goal that his two predecessors could not get through Congress, into the debate.
After Trump appeared to agree to the suggestion by Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein to first pass a clean DACA vote and then focus on comprehensive immigration, he had to be reminded and corrected by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy that such a move would not include funds for his border wall.
Where exactly Trump stands on DACA and the budget, and whether he is really serious about tackling comprehensive immigration reform, is even less clear after the meeting than before. The only thing that seems certain is that the president wants to be able to say that the wall he promised will be built, the government is funded, and DACA is resolved — somehow.
Ready to sign
"What's clear is, that just about anything [House Speaker] Paul Ryan, [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell and the Democrats agree to Trump will sign," said AEI's Ornstein. "And the negotiations are going to be more with them than with Trump himself. But he can help to mess up those negotiations."
The other thing complicating matters further was a court ruling temporarily halting Trump's decision to end DACA. In what can be viewed as a legal slap in the face for the president, the judge in his ruling referenced a September tweet by Trump stating that he did not want to deport the people impacted by his move to end DACA.
"We seem to be in the unusual position wherein the ultimate authority over the agency, the Chief Executive, publicly favors the very program the agency has ended," wrote the judge.
While this week's ruling is certainly not the last legal word on this matter and, as Trump said, will be challenged in courts, it further complicates the political wrangling over DACA, which expires in early March.
Kicking the can down the road?
But what does this mean for the ongoing negotiations? Will Congress manage to hammer out a DACA deal? Should Trump's call for comprehensive immigration reform be taken seriously? And can a government shutdown be averted?
Congressional expert Ornstein said it was 50-50 whether the government will shut down because lawmakers can't agree on a budget, but declined to try to give any other predictions.
"I think we are really in the territory where making a prediction is not going to get us very far," he said.
Steve Yale-Loehr, a professor of immigration law at Cornell University, who co-wrote the leading 21-volume treatise on the issue, predicted that Congress will do what it did a few weeks ago — kick the can down the road.
"I don't think President Trump and the US Congress will be able to finalize the government funding and immigration issues by January 19," he wrote in an email. "They are too complicated to resolve in just 10 days. Instead, I predict that Congress will simply extend current government funding levels without any changes for a few more weeks to give themselves more time to negotiate everything. The real deadline for DACA is March 5, not this month."