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White House Chief of Staff John Kelly expresses optimism about DACA deal without suggesting timeline

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, left, with Marc Short, the Trump administration’s director of legislative affairs, look on as President Donald Trump departs the White House in Washington, Jan. 5. 2018. Trump was traveling to Camp David for a meeting with congressional Republicans. (Tom Brenner/The New York Times Copyright 2018 / New York Times)

WASHINGTON - As House Republican leaders worked to avoid a government shutdown by rounding up votes for a short-term spending bill, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly expressed optimism that Congress will work out a deal to protect Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

Kelly, while offering no timetable for when an agreement might be reached, gave an upbeat assessment of the state of play in the debate over legal status for immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children.

"The DACA deal will be worked out, I think, by the United States Congress," he told reporters on Capitol Hill. "Both sides of the aisle have agreed to meet in a smaller group and come up with [what] they think is the best DACA deal, and then it'll of course be presented to the president."

Later, the White House expressed support for the short-term spending bill, and congressional liaison Marc Short said he was optimistic it would pass. But at least one Senate Republican - Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. - complicated the GOP outlook, saying he had informed leaders he will oppose the bill.

"I'm tired of it. This is the fourth one we've done, and you're killing the military," Graham told reporters.

The comments came as negotiations continued over a possible long-term deal on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Kelly spoke to reporters after meeting with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, who left the session frustrated by what they described as his inability to spell out specifically what President Donald Trump wants out of the immigration and border security debate.

House GOP leaders hoped to hold a vote on Thursday on a bill to keep the government open through Feb. 16 while extending a popular children's health program and rolling back several taxes in the Affordable Care Act. Rank-and-file members grudgingly accepted the plan on Wednesday.

"Right now, I think it passes," said Republican Study Committee Chairman Mark Walker, R-N.C., putting the odds at "better than 50-50." "I don't think it's overwhelming but I think it passes."

At the White House, Trump spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders endorsed the plan.

"The president certainly doesn't want a shutdown and if one occurs I think you only have one place to look, and that's the Democrats," she said during a daily news briefing.

Kelly said Trump wants to see dreamers remain "indefinitely as legal residents" in the United States, but not without increasing border security and closing what he described as "loopholes in our laws" affecting immigrants.

"For right now, the first bite of the apple is to solve the DACA problem, issue, to have the border secured and [close] some of the loopholes, and then the next step, as we've discussed in there, Phase II, might be the larger issue of the 11 million people who have been here for years," he said.

Kelly also said "we have to do something" about the temporary protected status program, which shielded some immigrants from deportation.

The proposal of a stopgap spending measure underscored Washington's ongoing stalemate over the status of DACA. Democrats are expected to oppose the measure in the absence of a deal to resolve the conflict.

In the House, the strategy will require votes from the conservative House Freedom Caucus, whose members have sunk previous spending bills by withholding their support. The group has not officially opposed the bill, but several members said they want it to provide longer-term funding for the military.

"I think we should fund the military for the balance of the year and hold the other spending flat. We do that, and I'll probably hold my nose," said Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., who voted against the last continuing resolution.

Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., another Freedom Caucus member, said he wants a vote on a conservative immigration bill written by Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., as well as a full year of military funding.

"We just keep doing this every month," said Perry, who also opposed the last stopgap spending measure. "Tell me, show me how voting for this is going to change it so that we don't have to keep doing this."

If Republican leaders can quell dissent among deficit and defense hawks and pass the measure with only GOP votes, House Democrats will lose the leverage they planned to exercise on behalf of DACA recipients during the current round of negotiations.

Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., a member of the House Armed Services Committee who wants to see a hike in defense spending, said it was "unconscionable" that military funding was being used as a political football by Democrats. But she suggested a shutdown would only play into their hands.

"They just care about scoring political points, and we've got to not let them do that," she said.

Full-year military spending is a non-starter for Democrats who want a matching increase in nondefense spending. And absent a bipartisan budget agreement, the military spending levels Republicans favor would force across the board spending cuts under a 2011 budget law.

Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., laid the groundwork Wednesday for attacks on Democrats who vote against the funding plan, arguing that failing to pass the bill would hurt the military as well as beneficiaries of the Children's Health Insurance Program, which the bill would extend.

"It's baffling to me that Democrats would be willing to block funding for our military because of unrelated issues," Ryan said at a news conference on Capitol Hill.

"This is not a time to play politics," said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. He argued Friday's deadline is "about the military and about the children."

Rep. Joseph Crowley, D-N.Y., chair of the Democratic caucus, repeated that his members will not support the measure without a fix for DACA recipients.

"Absent that, it will not have the support of the Democratic caucus," he said Wednesday at a news conference.

Congressional leaders were scheduled to meet Wednesday to discuss the standoff.

Multiple House Republican aides, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe internal thinking, said they were confident that they would be able to secure enough GOP votes to pass the stopgap. They described a relatively positive mood inside closed-door gatherings of Republican lawmakers on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning and said most of them understood that failing to pass the bill would only give Democrats more leverage to force concessions on spending and immigration.

Meanwhile, emerging from lawmakers' meeting with Kelly, Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., called the Wednesday morning session "a regurgitation off both sides, but I didn't get a sense that the administration has a clear bottom line that gets us to where we need to be."

After months of holding firm to their calls for passage of a bipartisan bill that would grant permanent legal status to DACA recipients, members of the Hispanic Caucus signaled Wednesday that they are open to supporting bipartisan compromises that merge legal protections with changes in border security.

During the meeting, Hispanic Caucus members asked Kelly to review a new bipartisan proposal from Reps. Will Hurd, R-Texas, Pete Aguilar, D-Calif. and others that was unveiled on Tuesday and that the caucus considers to be a sensible alternative.

The measure would provide legal protections for dreamers and authorize funding for border security that would be a mix of wall, fencing, security technology and more manpower.

Author information: Ed O’Keefe has covered Congress and national politics since 2008. Mike DeBonis covers Congress and national politics for The Washington Post. He previously covered D.C. politics and government from 2007 to 2015. Elise Viebeck is an enterprise reporter covering Congress and national politics. She joined The Post in 2015.