Democrats take aim at census citizenship question in spending fight

NEW YORK/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democrats hope to use urgent government funding talks under way in the U.S. Congress to reach a deal with Republicans that would remove the Trump administration’s controversial question on citizenship from the 2020 census.

The issue is a top priority for Democrats in both the Senate and House of Representatives, where lawmakers are scrambling to fund an array of federal programs by a Dec. 7 deadline to avoid a government shutdown, according to two lawmakers and three additional sources familiar with Democrats’ thinking.

The citizenship question “should be removed ... and I believe all options should be on the table in Congress to do so, including through the appropriations process,” Representative Jose Serrano of New York, who is in line to chair the House subcommittee that funds the census, told Reuters.

Derek Kilmer, a Democrat from Washington state and also a member of the subcommittee, told Reuters he would “pursue action with my colleagues on the House Appropriations Committee to block the inclusion of the citizenship question.”

Getting a deal done this year will not be easy as it would likely mean making concessions to Republicans on funding for the Trump administration’s proposed border wall with Mexico, two of the sources familiar with the Democrats’ thinking said.”

A Plan B would be to kick the issue down the road by passing a short-term funding bill, and resuming talks in early 2019, when Democrats control the House.

U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in March announced plans to ask respondents to the 2020 census whether they are U.S. citizens, drawing immediate ire from activist groups who say the question will frighten immigrants into abstaining from the count. A host of states, cities and activists have since sued the government to have the question removed and the case is likely to wind up before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Ross has said the citizenship data is necessary to enforce voter protection laws. But opponents stress that an undercount could cost immigrant communities a decade of political representation, as well as their share of $800 billion a year in federal aid.

With some federal agencies set to run out of cash on Dec. 7 unless Congress appropriates more money, lawmakers are engaged in tough negotiations on an array of thorny issues, including whether to include language protecting Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.

President Donald Trump has denied any collusion with Moscow, amid continuing worries that Mueller could be fired.

Trump also has dangled the possibility of government shutdowns if he does not get at least $5 billion this fiscal year for building a border wall.

There is bipartisan backing in the Senate for $1.6 billion to further secure the southwest border.

Democrats, set to assume the House majority in January for the first time since 2010, see the appropriations fight as a chance to bargain for language to prevent the Commerce Department from using funds to gather citizenship data in the census.

Time is short because the U.S. Census Bureau needs to print census forms by the spring of 2019.

While immigration activists oppose the citizenship question, many are wary of making concessions to Republicans on the border wall.

Steven Choi, executive director at the New York Immigration Coalition, said activists should try to persuade Republicans the question is bad for them, too.

“So many things that depend on the census cannot be allocated if you don’t get the census right,” said Choi, who has actively opposed both the citizenship question and the border wall. “It’s the legislators’ job to deal with those compromises but I think it’s a false choice.”

Reporting by Nick Brown and Richard Cowan; editing by Richard Valdmanis and Bill Trott