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House Republicans try to refocus government shutdown on immigration

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Government funding runs out in two days, but the Republican-led House and Democratic Senate are far from an agreement. So House Speaker Kevin McCarthy is trying to pivot. He wants to turn the fight over spending into a debate over the Biden administration's border policies. NPR congressional correspondent Deirdre Walsh joins us now from the Capitol. Hey, Deirdre.

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: OK. So at this point, does it look like Congress can avoid a shutdown?

WALSH: It does not. There just isn't a lot of time to negotiate a bipartisan bill. And the Senate and the House have to agree on one, and it has to get the president's signature. Today the Senate voted to keep advancing their plan. They have a bipartisan bill that keeps agencies funded through November 17. It adds $5 billion for disaster aid, $6 billion for Ukraine. But they still have to go through some procedural steps in the Senate. And if they can't agree to speed those up, that vote might not even happen before the shutdown deadline, which is essentially midnight on Saturday.

CHANG: Right.

WALSH: Over in the House, Speaker McCarthy is planning to bring up an entirely different bill tomorrow - a one-month stopgap bill that adds Republican-backed border policies to it. That's a nonstarter in the Senate. And it's actually unclear that McCarthy can even pass that bill in the House. He's been having trouble passing any Republican spending bills. He can't afford to lose more than four GOP votes.

CHANG: Answer me this, how does injecting immigration into this fight help avoid a shutdown?

WALSH: It doesn't look like it will, but it's a political move by Speaker McCarthy to try to pivot away from the dysfunction among House Republicans to an issue he thinks could be a weak spot for the Biden administration and for Democrats. Immigration's also really an issue that unites House Republicans at a time where they've been mostly fighting amongst themselves. This week at the border, we've seen record numbers of migrants crossing, and the speaker keeps pointing to Democrats like New York City Mayor Eric Adams, who's been pretty critical of the Biden administration and calling for some new actions. I talked to California Republican Congressman Mike Garcia, who supports Speaker McCarthy's strategy to try to deal with two things at once.

MIKE GARCIA: I think what this is is an opportunity for us to take care of a crisis or hopefully mitigate a crisis that is on the front burner of our constituents' minds right now, while also hopefully preventing a shutdown.

CHANG: I mean, maybe, but Congress has not been able to pass any significant immigration bills for years. So really, is there much chance that lawmakers will address immigration in the middle of this funding fight?

WALSH: To me, it really sort of feels like a Hail Mary right now. I mean, we're in divided government. There is this group of Republican senators meeting now trying to figure out a way to add some kind of border reforms that could get the support of House Republicans to that bipartisan Senate bill. They are very worried about a shutdown. Texas Senator John Cornyn is one of those. He's been in those talks. He admitted that it's pretty late to add this complicated issue, but he says maybe Democrats will agree because the situation at the border has become more urgent.

JOHN CORNYN: So we'd like to figure a way to both keep the government operating, but if we can make good policy here, and maybe this is an opportunity for Democrats who realize that this is a political loser for them.

WALSH: So far, Democrats are pointing out that the Senate funding bill has bipartisan support, and they say McCarthy should agree to that instead of taking cues from his far-right members, just making a shutdown more likely. The top Senate Republican, Mitch McConnell, when it comes to border security, made the point today that a shutdown will make things worse, force agencies to cancel tens of thousands of immigration hearings.

CHANG: That is NPR's Deirdre Walsh. Thank you, Deirdre.

WALSH: Thanks, Ailsa.

(SOUNDBITE OF LADY WRAY SONG, "GET READY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.