Border Bill Splits Democratic Caucus

Speaker Nancy Pelosi suffered a major defeat on a signature issue.

A whopping 129 House Democrats joined Republicans in passing the Senate’s version of the border bill yesterday. Neither the Speaker nor the liberal wing of the party are pleased.

The NYT headlines its coverage “House Passes Senate Border Bill in Striking Defeat for Pelosi.”

Congress sent President Trump a $4.6 billion humanitarian aid package on Thursday after Speaker Nancy Pelosi capitulated to Republicans and Democratic moderates and dropped her insistence on stronger protections for migrant children in overcrowded border shelters.

The vote came after a striking display of Democratic disunity and was a setback for Ms. Pelosi. Until Thursday, she had proved adept at navigating the complexities of a caucus rived by powerful progressive and moderate factions that often work at cross purposes. But their priorities clashed, the liberal flank was vanquished and the speaker — who had put her reputation on the line, calling herself a “lioness” out to protect children as she held out for stronger protections in the migrant facilities that house them — grudgingly had to accept defeat.

The final vote, 305 to 102, included far more Republicans in favor, 176, than Democrats, 129. It left House liberals furious.

“In order to get resources to the children fastest, we will reluctantly pass the Senate bill,” Ms. Pelosi said in a letter to Democratic lawmakers. “As we pass the Senate bill, we will do so with a battle cry as to how we go forward to protect children in a way that truly honors their dignity and worth.”

Her retreat came after Vice President Mike Pence gave Ms. Pelosi private assurances that the administration would abide by some of the restrictions she had sought. They included a requirement to notify lawmakers within 24 hours after the death of a migrant child in government custody, and a 90-day time limit on children spending time in temporary intake facilities, according to a person familiar with the discussions.

A last-minute revolt by centrist lawmakers ensured the demise of Ms. Pelosi’s efforts to toughen the conditions in the Senate’s $4.6 billion bill. The moderate Democrats had begun to worry about the possibility of leaving Washington on Friday for a weeklong July 4 recess without having cleared the humanitarian aid, and some were balking at a funding reduction for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. That left the House floor in chaos, with emotions running high.

Ms. Pelosi was left with little choice but to accept the less restrictive Senate bill, which had passed on a lopsided bipartisan vote this week and would do far less to rein in Mr. Trump’s immigration crackdown.

“We already have our compromise,” Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, said on the Senate floor, calling his chamber’s bill “the only game in town.”

POLITICO takes a similar tack with “‘Everyone hates this place’: Border bill tears apart Democratic caucus.”

Democrats broke into open warfare Thursday over Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s surrender to the Senate’s emergency border aid package, with the caucus’ long-simmering divide between progressives and centrists playing out in dramatic fashion on the House floor.

Some lawmakers even resorted to public name-calling, with progressive leader Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) accusing moderate Democrats of favoring child abuse — an exchange on Twitter that prompted two freshmen centrists to confront him directly on the floor, with other lawmakers looking on in shock.

Pelosi has spent months deftly navigating a diverse caucus brimming with political novices, deeply split on ideological lines and itching to throw the president out of office. But this week’s fiasco exposed fissures in Pelosi’s rank-and-file, in her leadership and in her relationship with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

“She is a very experienced legislator, but I think this is a very rough patch,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

“We can’t say that we have a lawless administration or a president who should be in prison, or whatever people want to say about him, but then cave,” she added. “You have to fight for what you believe.”

And the conclusion of the four-day whiplash battle within the caucus proved Pelosi, who often describes herself as a “master negotiator,” is not invincible. The battle further illustrates the hurdles Pelosi faces in the fall as she tries to keep her caucus united while negotiating with Republicans to avoid a fiscal cliff and debt default.

On this particular issue, I’m in rare agreement with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party in a dispute with Republicans and moderate Dems. But blaming Pelosi here is silly: she simply couldn’t win here.

Democrats are and long have been the majority party in the country. For structural reasons, though, Republicans tend to have an advantage in competing for control of the White House and Senate. And, almost by definition, when Dems have a majority in the House it’s because they’ve managed to win a considerable number of seats in swing districts where Progressive candidates aren’t viable. So, the Democratic caucus is naturally going to be hard to hold together on issues with extreme public visibility.

While both the NYT and POLITICO headlines are somewhat overwrought, though, the tension in the Democratic caucus is indeed something to behold.

Just before the vote, Pocan, the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, inflamed tensions further when he called the Problem Solvers Caucus — a bipartisan group of moderates that pushed Pelosi to take up the Senate bill — the Child Abuse Caucus.

The stinging attack was a reference to the Senate bill’s lack of additional language to protect migrant children that House progressives had fought aggressively for.

“Since when did the Problem Solvers Caucus become the Child Abuse Caucus?” Pocan wrote on Twitter.

Reps. Max Rose (D-N.Y.), and Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), both members of the Problem Solvers Caucus, confronted Pocan on the House floor over his tweet. According to sources familiar with the conversation, Rose used expletives, and Pocan said he did not apologize.

“I said, how come you can’t stay 24 hours to do your job?” Pocan said of his retort to Rose on the floor. “He said, ‘My mother thinks I’m a child abuser.’ I said, ‘I’ll tell your mother you’re not a child abuser.'”

Rose, whom his party considers to be vulnerable in 2020, vented his frustration Thursday shortly after the exchange, calling Pocan’s tweet “crazy, crazy language.”

“Mark’s tweet just speaks to why everyone hates this place. He’s just trying to get retweets. That’s all he cares about,” Rose told POLITICO.

Their spat continued on Twitter, with Pocan responding: “Maybe the REAL problem is someone who thinks this is about retweets and not about bad contractors, awful conditions and kids.”

More than 90 Democrats voted against the Senate bill, including members of leadership like Reps. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico and David Cicilline of Rhode Island — a sign of the deep discontent simmering within the caucus. In a shocking move, Pelosi’s entire team of negotiators on the border aid bill, including House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey of New York and Reps. Lucille Roybal-Allard of California and Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut also voted no.

Progressives, including Pocan, said they felt stung by the stunning course-reversal by Pelosi, where she swiftly bowed to pressure from moderates who had threatened to tank the House version of the bill — which contained hard-fought wins for the liberal Democrats. And Pocan warned that it could fire up the 90-member Congressional Progressive Caucus to take more hard-line stances on key bills in the coming months.

“I just think it’s hard to ask our caucus to help deliver votes to pass things,” Pocan said. “It’s just going to be a lot harder for us to care to help deliver votes.”

Multiple other liberal Democrats were also publicly seething at their centrist colleagues for forcing Pelosi to abandon her initial plan to vote on an amended version of the Senate bill that contained additional protections for migrant children.

House centrists, meanwhile, took a victory lap for their earlier efforts to pressure Pelosi into taking up the Senate bill.

“You have to understand, you’re not going to get everything you want,” Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), co-chair of the Problem Solvers Caucus, said in an interview after the bill passed. “We just wanted to make sure that none of us went home without getting something done for children and families at the border.”

In contrast with their disjointed counterparts, the Republican Caucus has become increasingly unified. There are damned few moderates left. And Pelosi needed to get a bill passed much more than McConnell did. He therefore had all the cards.

While my preference in outcome aligns with the progressives, I’m sympathetic to Gottheimer here. Given the option between no bill and the available bill, something was better than nothing.

FILED UNDER: Borders and Immigration, Congress, Nancy Pelosi, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. mattbernius says:

    In contrast with their disjointed counterparts, the Republican Caucus has become increasingly unified.

    My sense is that this has more to do with them becoming the minority party and therefore not having to advance policy. Though to your point about the loss of moderates, it makes sense that some of those more moderate voices lost their seats to Democrats in 2018.

  2. I am frustrated by the framing of this story (which is the way I have seen it framed across several sources, so I am not talking about this post, per se).

    The framing shouldn’t be “Pelosi loses” (and, as James notes, it is silly to blame Pelosi).

    The framing should be: Pelosi is making sure what needs to be done to get aid to these children–including doing what the GOP leadership has not been willing to do in the House of late: have a bipartisan vote to deal with a real and pressing problem.

    Also inherent is this: the GOP would have blocked the needed aid if Pelosi had not capitulated.

    But, of course, those headlines are harder to write.

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  3. Terrye Cravens says:

    It passed by a huge margin. Obviously a lot of Democrats in the House and Senate voted for it. I don’t blame her for doing this…people are suffering and now is not the time for some pissing match between the parties. They need to deal with this.

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  4. An Interested Party says:

    I am frustrated by the framing of this story…

    The framing shouldn’t be “Pelosi loses”…

    Indeed…”liberal” media, my ass…

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  5. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Pelosi is making sure what needs to be done to get aid to this children

    Only there is no mechanism guaranteeing the aid gets to the children. Considering that the cruelty this administration has shown to these kids is deliberate, I doubt much money will ever get to the kids.
    This is a war for the life of the Republic. Pelosi lost a battle. It happens. Move on or risk losing the war.

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  6. As I like to stress: the main media bias is towards a story. Conflict in the House caucus is a better story, and it is easier to write, so here we are.

  7. James Joyner says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    The framing shouldn’t be “Pelosi loses” (and, as James notes, it is silly to blame Pelosi).

    The framing should be: Pelosi is making sure what needs to be done to get aid to this children–including doing what the GOP leadership has not been willing to do in the House of late: have a bipartisan vote to deal with a real and pressing problem.

    Agreed, with the caveat that it wasn’t Pelosi who led the way on agreeing to vote on a bipartisan bill; she was forced into it by more moderate members of her own caucus. Given that the outcome was inevitable—and that she surely knew that before yesterday—you’d have thought she’d have gotten out in front and framed it as you have.

  8. @James Joyner: I think the framing in question is about the way the media has responded to the story, and less about how Pelosi has tried to spin it.

  9. Kathy says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    But, of course, those headlines are harder to write.

    Headlines, sometimes, were clickbait before there was clickbait.

    In politics, one could often resort to Futurama’s dropped premise: “You gotta do what you gotta do.” Most times also adding “Whether You Like It Or Not.”

  10. wr says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: “The framing shouldn’t be “Pelosi loses” (and, as James notes, it is silly to blame Pelosi).”

    I agree. It should be “humanity loses.”

  11. gVOR08 says:

    Vice President Mike Pence gave Ms. Pelosi private assurances that the administration would abide by some of the restrictions she had sought.

    I’m sure Pelosi gives that all the credence it deserves.

  12. gVOR08 says:

    @mattbernius:

    My sense is that this has more to do with them becoming the minority party and therefore not having to advance policy.

    In Winner-Take-All Politics Hacker and Pierson talk about “drift”. Drift is the idea that those who are doing very well under the current status quo don’t need change. They’re quite content for the government and the legislature to do nothing. Mostly they just want tax cuts for themselves and regulatory relief for their businesses. Tax cuts are the one thing Rs can do and they can get a lot of regulatory relief thru the back door without bothering Congress about it. Oh, and they want nothing done to prevent them digging up and selling every last ounce of carbon on the planet.

    The Rs are united because they all work for the same few paymasters. McConnell isn’t forced to compromise because there’s nothing his sponsors want bad enough to give anything up for it.

  13. Modulo Myself says:

    I think Pence promised to tell her whenever they kill a child. You can trust a fundamentalist Christian to follow Jesus, after all.

    The GOP is led by torture freaks, rapists, racists, and theocrats. This is what they want–hurting children to own the libs. Pelosi was in a difficult spot. A portion of this country has lost itself in a haze of cruelty and power, and there’s not any clear way to deal with these people.

  14. Jay L Gischer says:

    By my count, more members of the Democratic caucus voted for the bill than voted against. She was on record as holding out for more, so she didn’t get what she wanted, but this is clearly what the majority of her own caucus wanted. So there’s no violation of the Hastert Rule, if she even cares about that.

    So Speaker Pelosi wins, and Representative Pelosi (D-CA) loses this battle. I’m ok with this.