White House officials head to Capitol Hill on Wednesday for budget talks with congressional leaders ahead of a mid-January deadline to avert a federal shutdown that could imperil President Trump's agenda.
But Democrats want to talk about more than funding levels, insisting on a legislative solution to protect immigrant "Dreamers" from deportation and other issues in exchange for helping the Republican majority pass the spending bill.
The afternoon meeting, expected to convene at House Speaker Paul D. Ryan's office, resumes high-stakes negotiations that fizzled last year as both sides seek to use the Jan. 19 deadline for leverage.
The White House and congressional Republicans are determined to separate the budget negotiations from other issues, hoping to deprive Democrats of the opportunity to use the must-pass spending bill as a vehicle.
But because Ryan often relies on Democratic votes to pass spending bills over the objections of the most conservative Republicans in his majority, the dynamic provides House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) with leverage to make demands for her party's votes.
"Democrats are focused on fulfilling the many long-overdue, bipartisan priorities facing the American people," Pelosi wrote in a letter Tuesday to House Democrats. "We are fighting for funding for the opioid epidemic, veterans, pensions, disaster relief, National Institutes of Health, Children's Health Insurance Program and community health centers. We are firmly committed to swiftly passing the Dream Act."
The difficult math facing Republicans in the Senate will only get worse as their majority narrows to 51-49 on Wednesday, when the newly-elected senator from Alabama, Democrat Doug Jones, is sworn into office. Funding bills require 60 votes to overcome a filibuster threat and pass in the Senate.
Trump, who had met with congressional leaders to broker early budget deals, is instead sending budget director Mick Mulvaney and legislative director Marc Short to restart Wednesday's talks.
"Obviously, the budget is first and foremost one of the biggest priorities right now and certainly the big priority in the immediate term," White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters Tuesday. She said the meetings this week would touch on various issues, including immigration, healthcare, infrastructure and welfare reform.
Negotiators will try to produce new spending levels to fund the government for the remainder of fiscal 2018. Currently, federal operations are running under a temporary agreement, reached last month, to continue funding at last year's levels.
Without a new agreement, funding would revert to previously set spending cuts that kick in automatically under an earlier budget-slashing accord and that both sides want to avoid.
Defense hawks particularly object to the automatic cuts. Republicans are pushing to bolster Pentagon spending, but Democrats insist on parity for nonmilitary programs.
Democrats also want to use the must-pass bill to tack on other priorities — including more disaster funding after a $81-billion aid package for hurricane and wildfire relief stalled last year in the Senate.
The top priority, however, remains the so-called Dreamers, nearly 800,000 young immigrants who were brought the United States illegally as children and now face deportation as Trump ends the program that allows them to temporarily work and remain in the country.
Last year, Trump announced the termination of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and urged Congress to come up with a legislative fix before the March deadline. Days later, he made a deal with Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) to put the immigrants on a citizenship pathway with passage of the Dream Act in exchange for tougher border security measures from Congress.
More recently, though, Trump has reversed course again, returning to anti-immigrant rhetoric from the campaign trail that helped propel him to the White House.
Over the weekend, Trump made fresh demands that Congress provide funding for his promised border wall with Mexico and clamp down on legal immigration with new restrictions and limitations.
"The Democrats have been told, and fully understand, that there can be no DACA without the desperately needed WALL at the Southern Border and an END to the horrible Chain Migration & ridiculous Lottery System of Immigration etc. We must protect our Country at all cost!" Trump tweeted.
On Tuesday, he blamed Democrats for the standoff and predicted Latinos and DACA advocates "will start falling in love with Republicans and their President" if they come up with a solution. Polls show that Latinos have overwhelmingly unfavorable views of Trump.
Trump is expected to meet later this week separately with GOP leaders to map out the party's 2018 agenda.