Congress

Democrats withdraw rule to amend Senate border bill as moderates prepared to rebel

About 15 to 20 moderate Democrats planned to vote against the rule, according to an aide

Rep. Stephanie Murphy and other moderate Democrats had been prepared to vote against a rule to amend the Senate border supplemental, urging their leadership to allow a vote on the upper chamber’s version without changes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

At least 15 moderate House Democrats were prepared to rebel against their leadership Thursday and vote against a rule that would amend the Senate border supplemental to include a handful of progressive priorities, prompting leadership to withdraw the rule.

The moderates’ objection is significant, as House Democratic leaders had hoped their caucus would unify around the proposed changes in an effort to give them more sway in negotiations with the Senate and the White House. 

“Our leverage with the Senate and the administration is strengthened by the unity of House Democrats,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a “dear colleague” letter Thursday morning outlining Democrats’ proposed changes.

[Senate approves border bill; Pelosi and Trump talk compromise

Some moderates, many of them freshmen considered vulnerable for re-election in 2020, lobbied leadership Wednesday to just take up the Senate bill. But leadership ignored their preference in favor of pushing for changes primarily sought by progressive and Hispanic members. 

Some of the changes Democrats aimed to include in the Senate bill are universally supported in their caucus, such as language requiring Customs and Border Protection to establish standards for medical care, nutrition, hygiene and facilities.

The provision that particularly concerned the defecting moderates was one to eliminate the Senate bill’s $81 million in funding for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“The ICE funding that would be cut would come from personnel and human trafficking. How is cutting human trafficking a good vote for these members?” a senior Democratic aide close to the moderate wing of the caucus said. 

The aide said 15 to 20 Democrats had been prepared to vote against the rule before Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern withdrew it. Democrats could only afford 18 defections on the rule and have it still pass if all members were present and voting.

‘A good bipartisan bill’

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell warned in a Senate floor speech Thursday that removing the ICE funding was a non-starter for his conference, and if the House passed its amendment to the Senate bill that his chamber would move to table the measure and send it back.

Rep. Stephanie Murphy, co-chair of the moderate Blue Dog Coalition and one of the members prepared to defect on the rule, urged her leadership to simply take up the Senate-passed bill.

“The Senate bill is a good bipartisan bill that passed overwhelmingly in the Senate,” the Florida Democrat said. “It is an emergency on the border right now. We need to get money to the border as soon as possible. The House needs to take up the Senate bill and pass it and get money to the border.”

The Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group of 23 Democrats and 23 Republicans, issued a statement “asking for the immediate consideration” of the Senate version.

Per the Problem Solvers Caucus rules, at least 12 of the group’s Democrats would have had to agree with that statement in order for it to be issued.

Democratic leaders from Pelosi on down have each referred to the Senate bill as “good,” somewhat undercutting their argument that the House changes are necessary. The California Democrat on Thursday morning described the House amendment as “an improvement on the Senate bill.”

“Right now we are faced with a situation where we could do much better for the children,” she said, describing herself morphing into a “lioness” when children’s lives become endangered. 

Pelosi, however, did not rule out bringing up the Senate bill without changes if it comes to that, saying, “We’re looking forward to having further conversation on this matter. One step at a time.”

Vice President Mike Pence spoke with Pelosi for 50 minutes Thursday after she made her comments to reporters and urged the House to move on the Senate package quickly without change, according to a senior administration official.

“President Trump has directed that the administration find opportunities to work within its executive power on some of the priorities that the speaker has highlighted, and the administration will make announcements in due course,” the official said. 

However, Pelosi rejected the idea of administrative actions as a compromise when speaking to reporters earlier Thursday.

“No, we would rather have it statutory,” she said.

Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Mark Pocan said leadership should've gone forward with the rule vote, suggesting some of the threatened defections might not have materialized because it would've been a difficult vote for the moderates to explain.

"If they want to go home and explain this to constituents, why they thought Mitch McConnell had a better idea than Nancy Pelosi when it comes to taking care of kids, I would not want to be that person going home to a July 4 parade," the Wisconsin Democrat said.

Had Democrats gone forward with the rule vote and it was defeated, that would’ve been the first time in nearly 17 years that the House voted to reject a rule.

The last time was Nov. 14, 2002, when the House defeated a rule for considering a conference report to a bankruptcy overhaul. More than a third of Republicans, then in the majority, joined three-quarters of the Democratic majority in voting down the rule over a provision that aimed to block abortion protesters from filing bankruptcy to avoid paying court-ordered fines and judgments.

Paul M. Krawzak and Kellie Mejdrich contributed to this report.

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