By Jeff Mason
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - While Democrats and immigration advocates recoiled at hard-line immigration proposals unveiled this week by the White House, they see a chance to force Republicans' hand on legislation to help young "Dreamers" brought to the country illegally as children.
Their focus? A spending bill that Congress will need to pass in December in order to keep the U.S. government open.
Republicans, who control both houses of Congress, may need Democratic votes to approve the legislation because of divisions within their party over fiscal restraint.
Democrats are considering insisting on help for the Dreamers as their price for providing the votes that may be required to prevent a government shutdown. Republican President Donald Trump ended the Obama-era DACA program last month that protected the Dreamers, and gave Congress six months to find a solution.
"This is all heading towards a December deal on Dreamers as part of an omnibus or spending package," said Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, a liberal-leaning immigration advocacy group.
"If Trump embraces the nativists in his base and says: 'No deal unless I get everything,' there won't be many if any Democratic votes for a spending package that excludes Dreamers."
House of Representatives Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi told the Washington Post on Monday she did not rule out withholding Democratic support for the spending bill if needed to obtain a deal to protect the nearly 800,000 Dreamers in the United States.
Asked about the possibility of including action on Dreamers in the spending measure, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said the administration was not focused on the implementation process at the moment but would get into that at meetings this week after releasing the president's priorities on Sunday night.
In December, Trump and Congress face the expiration of a three-month deal struck on Sept. 8 to prevent a government shutdown.
That surprise deal between Trump and congressional Democrats maintained federal government funding at levels then in place until Dec. 8. Another stopgap bill will likely be needed to replace that, setting up further fiscal and legislative drama in Washington.
Republican leaders in the House have struggled in recent years to get a consensus within their party on budget deals. Members of the conservative Freedom Caucus have often demanded deep budget cuts unpalatable to more moderate Republicans.
If enough Republican lawmakers break ranks on the budget, House leaders would need Democratic votes to help make up the difference and avoid a government shutdown.
Trump as a businessman had a reputation for working to get deals by opening with an aggressive list of demands and later leaving the door open to compromise.
Administration officials want his immigration priorities implemented in conjunction with a plan to give Dreamers legal status. The wish list includes funding for a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico and a crackdown on unaccompanied minors who enter the United States from Central America.
Pro-immigration advocates dismissed those demands as non-starters and largely brushed off their release as immaterial to the debate because they were unacceptable to Democrats and many Republicans.
"I don't think that the ideas that were presented on Sunday really change the discussion or complicate things at all," said Tom Jawetz, vice president of immigration policy at the Center for American Progress.
Advocates say there is bipartisan support for measures to prevent Dreamers from facing deportation and allow them to secure work permits after Trump ended the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program enacted under former Democratic President Barack Obama.
The White House and many Trump supporters are eager, however, to see key campaign promises on border security enacted in exchange for any such fix.
That has advocates focused on the spending, or omnibus bill, as an avenue for Dreamer legislation that could pass both chambers unencumbered by demands related to immigration enforcement.
"It's highly unlike that a stand-lone bill could ever reach the president's desk," said Tyler Moran, managing director of the DC Immigration Hub, a strategy organization for pro-immigration groups. "The only vehicle is the omnibus bill."
(Reporting by Jeff Mason; Editing by Peter Cooney)