Senate Democrats' Unity Strategy Will Face Tough Tests

The opening gambit by Senate Democrats on a bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security gives a strong signal about how the party intends to handle its position as the minority on the Senate floor.

The strategy of using fundamental floor procedures to block action on controversial immigration pieces in the bill (HR 240) carries political risks in the near term, however, and big questions over what will be a long congressional term of votes.  

For the DHS bill, it has meant keeping united lawmakers who span the caucus’ political spectrum. Democrats will be challenged to keep that coalition together as Republicans try to peel some of the ranks away and bring forward legislation in areas such as health care that present tough choices for members.

“The process is going to vary from bill to bill,” said Sen. Angus King, the Maine independent who caucuses with the Democrats. “It depends on what the issues are. I just don’t think a budget bill is the proper place to legislate policy.”

The blockade on the DHS bill is a shift from the strategy the Democrats undertook last month with the first major bill before the Senate, the measure (S 1) mandating completion of the Keystone XL. While a majority of Democrats opposed the bill, they debated amendments and ultimately helped pass the bill.

“It’s no fun being in the minority, and I hope it ends soon, but as long as we’re in the minority, I think we should try to be constructive,” Sen. Richard J. Durbin, the No. 2 in Democratic leadership, said at the time.

But Democrats changed up for the DHS bill. Tied to the measure are provisions that would block or roll back President Barack Obama’s executive actions on immigration and restrict his ability to take further actions in the future.

Even as Republicans offered alternative proposals to minimize the impact on immigration policy, Democrats balked. Democratic leaders likened any attempt to tie DHS funding to immigration riders to “hostage taking.”

“People need to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time,” said New Mexico Democrat Martin Heinrich, who helped pull the chamber together this week for a bipartisan lunch. “There are times we’re going to throw down and fight and that should not keep us from working with people when there’s constructive common ground. On this issue we have some very substantial differences, clearly.”

Does that mean the Democrats are not interested in being constructive?

"Absolutely not. We're being very constructive. We want to pass a bill that has been ... worked out in a bipartisan way," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y. "Who is not being constructive? Ted Cruz and all of the Republicans who are following him and who say, 'I want my way on an extraneous issue — an important issue but an extraneous issue, immigration — and I'm going to hold this bill up and shut down a good portion of the government if I don't get my way.' It's clear."

Whose Hostage?

Democrats who helped move the pipeline legislation to the floor were eager for a broad energy debate and hoped the open amendment debate promised by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., would give them the chance to change the bill or at least make it easier to swallow.

In the end, however, many of the proposals faced 60-vote thresholds on motions to table, none of which Democrats were able to overcome with their 46 votes alone.

On the DHS bill, Democrats say they don’t want to trade funding over policy.

“We can debate immigration,” New Hampshire Democrat Jeanne Shaheen, who leads the appropriations subcommittee that oversees DHS funding, said on the floor. “I think members of the Democratic caucus would be happy to do that. ... But this is not the time for us to have this debate. Now we need to be funding the Department of Homeland Security so they can continue to do their work.”

So the minority is using its greatest procedural power — the filibuster — to stop the measure altogether and push consideration of a “clean” bill (S 272), free of the contentious immigration provisions.

Though some Democrats previously expressed reservations about the president’s actions, the party united in opposition to the House-passed bill. The only member to break ranks came from the Republican side, Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., said in a statement the measure “complicates the process of finding a solution.”

While Republicans attempt to paint the move as obstructionist, Democrats are unapologetic as DHS funding stands to run out in a little more than three weeks.

“It’s still hostage taking, because it's attached to funding the Homeland Security bill. We're now only debating the size of the ransom,” said Schumer. “To my dear Republican friends, go back to the drawing board. You control the Senate. ... It's your responsibility to find a way out of this.

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