After Brief Shutdown, Budget Passes, Immigration Fight Looms
Congress’ early morning passage of a bipartisan budget bill that raises government spending levels through 2019 cleared the deck for lawmakers to focus squarely on immigration ahead of a DACA deadline early next month.
The brief showdown over the spending measure previewed intra-party fault lines that will push and pull House Speaker Paul Ryan and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi within their respective caucuses over how to address soon-to-expire protections for nearly 800,000 undocumented immigrants.
The Senate passed the budget deal easily, 71-28, at 1:30 a.m. In the House, the margin was narrower, 240-186, with the bill passing at 5:30 and moving on to President Trump’s desk for his signature. One hundred nineteen Democrats voted against it, many of them frustrated that they didn’t use the funding deadline to push for an immigration solution. Sixty-seven Republicans voted against the deal over frustrations that it wasn’t conservative enough, which could also be a preview of how the party’s right flank will handle a bipartisan immigration measure.
The contours of that bill are not yet clear. The Senate is slated to take the first crack, with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell expected to begin a lengthy open amendment process as early as next week, guaranteeing that if an immigration bill passes his chamber, it will have bipartisan support.
But the House remains a major question mark, with both party leaders walking a tightrope between practicality and the fervor of their bases. The pressure is particularly prominent on the Democratic side after leadership failed twice to attach DACA legislation to must-pass spending bills. But it could quickly shift to Ryan if pressure mounts to put a package on the floor that many Republicans would oppose.
Pelosi and other Democratic leaders tried to balance calls from the grassroots to reject any budget bill lacking an immigration component against the realities of being the minority party and the consequences of another government shutdown.
In a letter to her colleagues Thursday afternoon, Pelosi praised the details of the budget agreement – which she helped negotiate – but said it was insufficient without a solution on immigration and reiterated her calls for Ryan to commit to an open process.
“We cannot allow our success in one part of the discussion to diminish our leverage in another,” Pelosi said. “We have always said nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to.”
As activists flooded lawmakers’ offices in person and through phone calls Thursday, Pelosi and Democratic leaders began a whip operation in opposition to the bill. But leaving a meeting of their caucus Thursday evening, many lawmakers said leadership was no longer urging opposition, leaving members free to vote as they saw fit.
This came a day after Pelosi spoke on the House floor for a record eight hours to demand a vote on DACA, a move that garnered mixed reaction from Democrats and had Republican campaign operatives planning to use the minority leader as a weight to handicap their opponents in the midterm elections.
One House Democrat, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, called Pelosi’s presentation “absolutely off message” and “political malpractice” and said several members were furious with the direction she took.
At least one activist was more measured. “Eight hours on the floor is not an insignificant thing, and it was really incredible to see. But I think it was more to provide herself cover than anything else,” said Angel Padilla, policy director for the group Indivisible, arguing that the party lost its leverage on the issue during the first shutdown. “I really believe Pelosi and [Chuck] Schumer want to get something done, but the question is: How far are they willing to go?”
Others defended Pelosi’s approach as one of the few options Democrats had at this point to apply pressure. “She’s been consistent,” said Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva. “Her marathon was important because it focused on the kids and it also refocused attention on this issue, and I appreciate that.”
Republicans meanwhile face long-standing divisions within their party over the issue of immigration. President Trump’s proposal to extend a citizenship pathway to nearly 2 million undocumented immigrants eligible for DACA protections in exchange for $25 billion in border security and curbs to legal immigration programs was met with hostility from conservatives allergic to anything that is viewed as amnesty.
Despite demands for more assurances he will act, Ryan has been clear that he would only bring to the floor legislation that the president would sign.
“I want to make sure that we get it done right the first time,” Ryan said. “I don't want to just risk a veto. I want to actually get it done the first time, and I think we can get there.”
Democrats expressed frustration with Ryan’s stance, arguing they could force Trump’s hand by passing a bipartisan compromise.
“I think we could get votes for a bill that could go to the White House that would become law without his signature, and the idea that we would empower him to somehow have a pre-veto over legislation that hasn’t even gone through the process is ridiculous,” said Rep. Dan Kildee.
But Republicans are wary of having their hand forced by such an agreement, and have urged the speaker to hold a vote on conservative legislation proposed by Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte. That bill would extend temporary protective status for those currently enrolled in DACA while making more specific cuts to family immigration and end the diversity lottery system. Some argue that Republicans relinquished some of the leverage they won in the last shutdown fight by considering the administration’s proposal.
“It certainly moved the right flank off the debate from the Goodlatte proposal to citizenship to over 1.8 million,” said Dan Holler of the conservative group Heritage Action. “It’s unclear how any of it plays out.”
Holler said leadership is in the difficult position of “how do you reconcile that view of what Karl Rove said about demographic destiny versus Trump’s populist approach? There's a whole host of things the Republican Party disagrees with its base on.”
Moderate members of the conference, many of whom face difficult re-election bids in swing districts, are inclined toward a legislative fix for Dreamers -- those brought to the country illegally by their parents.
“I would like to think the president is going to support the bill we advance. But even if he doesn’t, he can veto it,” said Pennsylvania Rep. Charlie Dent, a moderate who is retiring next year. “It’s more important that we protect the members in these marginal and swing districts who believe in the policy, but also need it politically.”
But Republicans acknowledge the president will have critical sway in the process. “If the president gets behind what the Senate passes, it’ll pass the House,” said South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who has been leading bipartisan efforts in his chamber. “If he doesn’t, it’ll die in the House.”
The fate of immigration policy in the House has liberal activists most concerned. But now that any piece of legislation won’t be tied to other agenda items, progressive groups see an avenue to apply public pressure.
“The ultimate leverage in this fight always comes from the fact that a majority wants protection for Dreamers,” said Ben Wikler, Washington director for the progressive group MoveOn.Org, referring to public polling that shows bipartisan support for some type of protected status for children brought here illegally.
“As much as Republicans have been acting as though Dreamers are a hook for them to extract concessions, the truth is it’s ultimately terrible for them to be on the wrong side of this issue,” Wikler said. “The fundamental strategy ... is to raise the moral and political pressure on Republicans as well as Democrats to resolve this crisis.”
In the end, some Democrats used precisely that argument to justify voting for the budget bill. Rep. John Yarmuth, the ranking member on the House Budget Committee, said he approved of the agreement, but also thought it put Democrats in a strong position ahead of the coming immigration debate. He admitted most of his colleagues disagreed.
“If [McConnell] does what he says he’s going to do, and there’s a bipartisan bill that comes out of the Senate and comes to the House, then Ryan is under phenomenal pressure,” Yarmuth said. “He’s going to have to bring it to the floor.”