With just two weeks until Congress is expected to leave town, the fate of roughly 700,000 young immigrants still hangs in the balance.
And, it could be up to Senate Democrats now to decide whether they will make protections for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program recipients a condition of their support for a must-pass spending bill or punt the issue to next year when they still have months to work it out.
There's a whole host of issues that must be dealt with by the end of the year including reauthorizing a spying program, funding disaster relief and paying for the Children's Health Insurance Program, which has all sparked questions about whether Democrats will insist DACA also be included in that list of year-end spending priorities.
"There's no reason it can't get done, but there's a lot that needs to be done in the next 10 days," Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, a member of the Senate Democrats' leadership, said about DACA on Monday evening. "We have the CHIP re-authorization, we need the budget numbers, we have to have some decisions on a number of things."
Asked if Democrats would reject a spending bill that punted DACA to January, independent Maine Sen. Angus King, who caucuses with the Democrats, said, "I can't answer that."
Republican leaders have thrown cold water on the idea that a DACA deal could get attached to a year-end spending package, leading to questions about whether Democrats -- under pressure from their base -- would shut down the government over a program that doesn't begin to expire fully until March. Activists and some Democratic members point out that the must-pass spending deadline could be the party's best opportunity to exert pressure on Republicans who don't want a government shutdown to occur when they control all levers of government.
"That's a complex question that's not amenable to a simple answer. There's a whole lot of things that are not resolved right now. Republicans control the whole government -- House, Senate and White House. We are what, 69, 70 days past CHIP authorization. I've got folks pressing every day on wildfire relief, Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico ... CHIP and Dreamers," said Sen. Chris Coons of Deleware, a Democrat. "I think we ought to be able to fix all of that, and if it takes another week or two to resolve all of those, I think folks will forgive us. But I don't think we should go home or close out the year without a clear path to resolving it."
Most Democrats in the Senate say they are optimistic that an immigration bill will be passed by the end of the year or close to it and that they'll never be forced to decide between funding the government or giving certainty to DACA recipients. But, with fewer than two weeks until Congress faces its spending deadline and no real, concrete compromise on DACA at this point, it's unclear how Democrats will proceed if they are faced with no solutions for young immigrants.
"There's still some negotiations going on between some Democrats and some Republicans about how to get this done," said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat from New Hampshire. "I'm hopeful that will produce a positive outcome."
Talks have circled for months on a fix to DACA, but sticking points remain. Working groups and bipartisan negotiations have formed and faltered in both chambers, with some continuing under the radar even as leadership focuses on bigger picture issues like tax reform and spending cap negotiations. On the House side, rank-and-file members in the Problem Solvers Caucus are trying to reach a bipartisan compromise, while Minority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois continues to negotiate with a range of Republicans interested in a deal on the Senate side.
Pressure has been increasing on leadership from both sides as the end of the year looms. Democrats on the left, especially Congressional Hispanic Caucus members in the House, have pushed House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California to hold firm on wanting something by the end of the year. Illinois Rep. Luis Gutierrez said it would be a "betrayal" to push the fight until January, and just last week Pelosi pledged to not go home for the year without a fix.
Moderate Republicans have also sought to push their leadership for a fix by the end of the year, with nearly three dozen House Republicans urging House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin to come up with a solution by then. But on the other side, conservatives like the House Freedom Caucus have also threatened a political price if Ryan were to attach a deal to a spending package.
In private, Democratic staff have been concerned about being able to reach a compromise by the end of the year, and whether Republicans will cave in the face of a potential shutdown, potentially forcing Democrats' hand. Still, at least one Senate Democratic aide on Monday remained optimistic, saying back room talks were making more progress than public posturing might indicate.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, who has been working on a DACA deal, said he wouldn't negotiate publicly about what Democrats will do if a deal isn't reached by the end of the year, but that his group continues to work.
"It should have been done five months ago," the Vermont Democrat said.
Throughout the entire process, President Donald Trump has remained the mystery. Lawmakers know that his blessing could allow a deal to happen rapidly -- while his public opposition to a deal could prove its death knell. The President had spoken favorably in September about DACA recipients and pushed Congress to reach a deal, but in recent weeks ne has taken to hardline rhetoric on illegal immigration and blaming Democrats for crime.
Republicans -- who do support a fix to DACA -- say that it's still an open question whether a deal will come together by the holiday, but that no matter what, they hope to see Republicans and Democrats come together to keep the government funded.
"I support marrying up DACA reform to border security and a break in chain migration on the spending bill," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina. "I support that. I'm not going to shut down the government over it."