Newly-elected Alabama Sen. Doug Jones was sworn in Wednesday, narrowing the Republican majority in the chamber to 51-49, just as the White House resumes bipartisan budget talks aimed at averting a government shutdown this month.
That goal becomes slightly harder with the addition of Jones, who won a stunning special election in December to become the first Democratic senator from Alabama in 20 years.
He was seated Wednesday along with Democratic Sen. Tina Smith of Minnesota, appointed by that state’s governor to replace former Sen. Al Franken, also a Democrat, who resigned amid sexual misconduct allegations.
Senate leaders praised their new colleagues in a rare moment of comity, but hours later difficult talks resumed on Capitol Hill between White House officials and congressional leaders aimed at reaching a budget deal by a Jan. 19 deadline.
Administration officials and GOP leaders want to keep negotiations focused on government spending levels, but Democrats are trying to use their leverage to press other issues — particularly extending protections for so-called Dreamers, the nearly 800,000 young immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children. The immigrants face deportation this year because Trump ended the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Republicans said Wednesday they wanted a two-year budget deal, which would limit Democrats’ ability to use the annual must-pass funding measure to tack on immigration legislation or other priorities, and force them to address those issues now. Any budget deal will need bipartisan support to pass out of the Senate, where 60 votes are needed to avoid a filibuster.
“It is important that we achieve a two-year agreement that funds our troops and provides for our national security and other critical functions,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) in a statement. “It also remains important that members of Congress do not hold funding for our troops hostage for immigration policy.”
Dreamers have become a top priority for Democrats. Even some rank-and-file Republicans want to help the young immigrants, especially as business and community leaders voice concerns about widespread disruption that might occur because of deportations.
Three former Homeland Security Department chiefs Wednesday warned Congress not to wait until Trump’s March deadline to terminate DACA to pass legislation protecting the young immigrants.
“The realistic deadline for successfully establishing a Dreamers program in time to prevent large-scale loss of work authorization and deportation protection is only weeks away,” wrote Jeh Johnson, Janet Napolitano and Michael Chertoff in a letter to congressional leaders. The department would need time to implement the new rules, they wrote.
“Congressional delay past the next few weeks will force the employers of hundreds of thousands of DACA recipients into a state of instability, in which they have to plan for losing these critical employees.”
Trump, though, has wavered on what to do with the young people. At times he has expressed empathy with them. But he also campaigned on an anti-illegal immigration agenda centered on the promise of a border wall with Mexico.
Wednesday’s talks with Trump’s budget director Mick Mulvaney and legislative director Marc Short did not appear to produce a deal.
Democrats are also pushing for disaster aid in the aftermath of hurricanes and wildfires, and healthcare bills that McConnell had previously agreed to consider to help stabilize premium costs under the Affordable Care Act.
“We had a positive and productive meeting, and all parties have agreed to continue discussing a path forward to quickly resolve all of the issues,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) in a statement.
A Democratic leadership aide, granted anonymity to discuss the private talks, said the four leaders and White House officials agreed to keep negotiating on spending levels, “a DACA and border agreement, a healthcare package, as well as a disaster aid bill.”
Failure to reach a deal in coming weeks could require Congress to approve another temporary funding measure, similar to three others passed during this fiscal year that began in October, to avoid a shutdown.
Earlier Wednesday, McConnell welcomed the new Democratic senators with an almost resigned relief after the Alabama special election split Republicans over the child-molestation allegations against GOP candidate Roy Moore.
McConnell was among many high-profile Republican leaders who said Moore should step aside, willing to lose the seat that had been held by longtime GOP Sen. Jeff Sessions, now head of President Trump’s Justice Department. Trump, by contrast, strongly backed Moore, saying it would be worse to allow a Democrat to take the seat.
Schumer gushed that it was exciting to welcome his new colleagues, noting Smith’s expertise in state government, most recently as lieutenant governor.
Vice President Mike Pence swore in the new senators, who were accompanied by two former vice presidents — Joe Biden, a longtime colleague of Jones who campaigned for the former federal prosecutor, and Walter Mondale with Smith — as visitor galleries filled with family members and supporters.
Among those watching was former Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr., who was a deputy in the Justice Department when Jones — as U.S. attorney in Alabama — prosecuted Ku Klux Klansmen decades after the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham.
Asked earlier Wednesday what kind of senator he would be, Jones echoed his campaign plea for common-sense leadership. He now represents a deep Republican stronghold where Trump remains popular.