WASHINGTON — If congressional Republicans want a deal to avert a government shutdown and boost military spending, they don’t just have to convince Democrats — they have to convince each other.
One key defense lawmaker — House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas — said Tuesday that Democrats are putting immigrants ahead of the military. Tying military spending to any other issue, he said, is “absolutely wrong.”
But another key lawmaker on defense — Senate Armed Services Committee member Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. — said Republicans need to accept a deal on immigration to win defense spending increases. Graham favors a compromise.
“For a Republican to believe that we will get all of the defense funding that we desperately want and need, and we’ll deal with [immigration] later, how naive can you be?” Graham told an audience at the conservative American Enterprise Institute on Wednesday.
The conflicting messages show the difficulties that Republican leaders face in finding a deal on both issues, even with control of both chambers of Congress and the White House. Both Thornberry and Graham are leaders in their respective chambers on defense issues, as well as important supporters for any possible path ahead on budget plans.
Many Democrats have insisted there be an agreement on a legislative replacement for the expiring Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, for them to vote for a stopgap continuing resolution to fund the federal government beyond the Jan. 19 deadline — much less a deal to raise statutory budget caps for the defense and nondefense sides of the federal budget for fiscal 2018. (One proposed fix is called the DREAM Act — and DACA recipients are often referred to as Dreamers.)
Graham, a leading defense hawk in the Senate, is also a member of the “Gang of Six” lawmakers expected to release a bipartisan proposal that protects DACA recipients and provides funding for security along the U.S.-Mexico border.
“I’m in the camp of doing something right by the Dreamers and doing something right by the military, and do it now, and do it together,” Graham said.
That position is at odds with Senate Republican leadership. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., says lawmakers have until March to complete negotiations on immigration. Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, tweeted Tuesday that the Gang of Six deal would not get a Senate vote because President Donald Trump will not sign it.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., argued along similar lines, invoking military training accidents lawmakers have linked to unstable defense spending.
“When you see a situation when more of our men and women are dying in training accidents than they are in combat, its a serious situation,” Ryan said. “And to block funding for our military, with a Friday deadline over unrelated issues, makes no sense to me.”
House Republicans on Tuesday proposed a stopgap continuing resolution to fund the federal government through mid-February. With House GOP votes uncertain, Republican leadership has added sweeteners to attract Democrats: an extension of child health insurance and delays on health care-related taxes.
That continuing resolution still punts on a 2018 federal spending deal and on the immigration debate.
Some pro-defense Republicans have either threatened to vote against a continuing resolution, citing the harm unstable funding does to military readiness, or — like Thornberry — played coy about how they will vote.
Speaking Wednesday, Graham said an immigration deal seemed close on Jan. 9, when Trump seemed supportive during at a bipartisan meeting at the White House. But on Thursday, Trump drew immigration hardliners into the talks and has been accused of using derogatory language to describe immigrant countries, charging the negotiations.
Graham blames White House staff for giving Trump bad advice.
Trump has since accused Democrats of wanting to create a crisis for political benefit.
“The Democrats want to shut down the Government over Amnesty for all and Border Security,” Trump tweeted Tuesday. “The biggest loser will be our rapidly rebuilding Military, at a time we need it more than ever. We need a merit based system of immigration, and we need it now! No more dangerous Lottery.”
Thornberry took a softer but similar line Tuesday, calling out the “political games on the backs of men and women risking their lives for us.”
“I think today there could be an agreement reached on a cap deal, and frankly I think it’s not that difficult to get a DACA deal,” Thornberry said. “The question is: Do they want to? We’ll see how the week goes.”
Leo Shane III, of Military Times, contributed to this report.
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.