Congress

House Democrats find common scapegoat for border bill split — Senate Democrats

Progressives and moderates point fingers at Democratic senators for lost leverage

Congressional Progressive Caucus Co-Chair Pramila Jayapal says Senate Democrats should have coordinated better with the House to ensure the party could exert maximum pressure in border funding negotiations. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

Moderate and progressive House Democrats were split Thursday as a majority of their caucus reluctantly joined Republicans in clearing the Senate’s border funding bill for the president’s signature. But the two factions uniformly agreed on one thing: Senate Democrats had sabotaged their negotiations.

Emotions were raw Thursday as House Democratic leaders went through a tumultuous 24-hour period trying to force some of their priorities into the Senate’s $4.59 billion supplemental funding measure only to face obstacles from their own party. 

There were several roadblocks that culminated with the Republican-led Senate jamming the Democrat-led House with its border bill. But the one most House Democrats point to was the Senate rejecting their version of the funding package and then passing its own bill in an overwhelming 84-8 vote. 

“We like our legislation a lot better, so there’s a lot of angst on our side,” said Maryland Rep. Jamie Raskin, the representative to Democratic leadership for members who’ve served five or fewer terms. 

Still, late Wednesday through mid-morning Thursday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi clearly thought she had leverage to force some concessions from Senate Republicans and the White House. She even acknowledged so in a “Dear Colleague” letter she shared during a caucus meeting Thursday morning, outlining a handful of provisions from the House bill she planned for the chamber to amend into the Senate version. 

“Our leverage with the Senate and the administration is strengthened by the unity of House Democrats,” the California Democrat wrote. 

But the unity that had been on display two days earlier when the House passed its border supplemental bill 230-195 — with only four freshman progressives defecting — broke down Thursday, and the amendment vote never happened.

Around 15 to 20 moderate Democrats didn’t feel comfortable with some of the changes, namely language that would’ve reduced funding for Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the Senate version that was allocated in part to fighting human trafficking. 

The moderates’ objections were strong enough that Democratic leaders had to retreat from a planned vote on the amendment, pulling the rule that would’ve added the language to the Senate bill.

‘Disrespectful behavior’

With Senate Republicans not budging on Democrats’ other asks and time running out, Pelosi was left with no better option than to allow a vote on the Senate bill without changes.

“At the end of the day, we have to make sure that the resources needed to protect the children are available,” the speaker wrote in an afternoon “Dear Colleague” letter. “Therefore, we will not engage in the same disrespectful behavior that the Senate did in ignoring our priorities. In order to get resources to the children fastest, we will reluctantly pass the Senate bill.”

In last-minute negotiations Thursday with Vice President Mike Pence, Pelosi did receive promises that the administration would take action itself on two of the provisions Democrats had wanted to put in the bill. 

Pence agreed that members of Congress would be notified within 24 hours after the death of a child in custody and that children would spend no more than 90 days in migrant influx facilities, according to a source familiar with his negotiations with the speaker. 

That concession did little to appease dozens of progressive and Hispanic members. Ultimately, 95 Democrats voted against the bill.

A majority of Democrats, 129, supported the measure but they were outnumbered by the 176 Republicans who voted “yes,” many of whom also would’ve preferred a different product than the Senate bill.  

In a sign of how disliked the move was, 11 of the 17 Democrats in party leadership voted against the bill, including the No. 4, 5 and 6 Democrats: Assistant Speaker Ben Ray Luján, Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries and Vice Chairwoman Katherine M. Clark. (One member of leadership did not vote: California Rep. Eric Swalwell, who co-chairs the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, was in Miami for the presidential debate.)

Clark did not fault her moderate colleagues for the their opposition to the House amendment. Democrats lost their leverage in the Senate, she said, noting the strong bipartisan vote there was “very hard to overcome.

“I really believed in the proposal that the House put forward, and I felt that if the Senate couldn’t agree to basic standards like checking children’s vital signs when they are detained by the Border Patrol, and making sure that the safeguards are there … then I couldn’t support the bill,” the Massachusetts Democrat said.

Hard feelings

One Democrat who did not have a problem attacking the moderate rebels —many of them members of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus — was Rep. Mark Pocan, who co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

“Since when did the Problem Solvers Caucus become the Child Abuse Caucus?” the Wisconsin Democrat tweeted before the vote.

That tweet prompted freshman Problem Solvers Caucus member Max Rose to confront Pocan on the floor. The New York Democrat wasn’t even one of the moderates who planned to vote against the amendment progressives were pushing. 

“I think Mark probably got a couple more Twitter followers and that is an arbiter of success for him,” Rose told reporters after their floor exchange. 

It was “not ideal” to have to “eat something from the Senate,” said Rose, who faces a tough re-election next year. But he ultimately voted for the bill, he said, because it represents progress on the issues happening at the border. 

“I would have stayed here through July 4 fighting for what I believe is right [but] wasn’t given the opportunity to,” he said.

New Jersey Rep. Tom Malinowski, another vulnerable freshman moderate, said he was willing to vote for the amendment that some of his colleagues were opposing but understood their concerns about the reduction in ICE funding designated for combating human trafficking.

Malinowski said he voted for the Senate bill as the only option, but he had been prepared to stay through the recess for further negotiations.

“But I think the Senate Democratic leadership was indicating that they weren’t willing to go that route. So that left us with very little leverage,” he said.

Blame game

Progressive Caucus Co-Chair Pramila Jayapal, who voted against the bill, said she believes the moderates undercut Pelosi’s effort to negotiate. But the Washington Democrat seemed to put more blame at the Senate Democrats’ feet, saying they should’ve coordinated better with the House to ensure the party could exert maximum pressure in negotiations.

The divisions Democrats’ displayed in this process “is not good for our unity” as they head toward talks with Republicans over the fiscal 2020 appropriations bills and the National Defense Authorization Act, Jayapal said. 

Senate Democrats also joined Republicans on Thursday in overwhelmingly passing, 86-8, a version of the NDAA that differs from the one House Democrats plan to vote on when they return from the July 4 recess. 

Jayapal cited that vote as a problem as well, saying Senate Democrats needed to “stop voting with [Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell and allow us to have some leverage so that we can actually use our majority in the House.” 

While House Democrats were probably trying to deflect from their own caucus divisions in blaming their Senate counterparts, they weren’t the only ones making such observations. Adam Jentleson, who served as an aide to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, tweeted that Senate Democrats could have filibustered the bill in their chamber or kept their “yes” votes to a minimum.

Not all Democrats were looking to point fingers, however.

“I don’t find that casting [blame] or doubting people’s motivations is the best way to find compromise and bipartisan solutions to very real problems,” Rep. Stephanie Murphy, a Problem Solvers Caucus member and co-chair of the moderate Blue Dog Coalition, said when asked about Pocan’s tweet.

The Florida Democrat, who opposed the last-minute House amendment and pushed for a vote on the Senate version, separately described her colleagues across the Capitol as voting for “a good bill.”

“It has very specific guardrails. It is about 80 percent of what the House Bill was. It made a few small changes,” she said. “And they put forward a viable bill that could get both Republican and Democratic support, as well as be signed by the president.”

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