Why the House Breakthrough on Border Funding Matters

Why the House Breakthrough on Border Funding Matters
Why the House Breakthrough on Border Funding Matters
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America has problems that need to be solved. The uninsured need health care coverage, marginalized communities need better education, and our businesses need growth. But most urgent now, the children suffering at the southern border need humanitarian relief, immediately.

That’s why America needed Congress to act on this crisis, knowing that, all too frequently in recent years, it hasn’t. But this time was different; Congress came together across party lines and helped, just in time.

The underlying political problem in Congress is clear enough. Time and again, members dig in on what they believe is the only way to solve a problem. Anything short of their own prescription is, to their thinking, unacceptable. Under those circumstances, it’s little wonder that so little gets done. In a world where everyone’s mantra is “my way or the highway,” no one goes anywhere until someone has the courage to demand something better — and that’s what happened last week.

Thanks to a broad bipartisan agreement in the Senate and the courage of results-oriented pragmatists in the House, Congress began to work as it is supposed to.

Early in the week, Senate Republicans and Democrats negotiated a bill to improve conditions at the border, including more than $4 billion to feed and house migrants and unaccompanied minors. The Senate Appropriations Committee passed the bill 30-1. The full Senate voted for it 84-8, with overwhelming support from both parties. The bill then went to the House.

The clock was ticking, and Congress’ weeklong July 4 recess was nearing. The federal agency charged with caring for detained children and migrants was running out of money. Would the House pass the bipartisan Senate bill so that the money could be deployed ahead of the holiday recess? Or would House members reject the bipartisan Senate bill and insist on its own draft, which the Senate and the president explicitly said they would not accept? 

Not long ago, we would not have had to even ask the question. House members, aware that the need was urgent and that the Senate and White House would refuse to accept a rewrite, would have put the humanitarian option over party and ideology. Better not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. But lately, these are the sorts of disagreements that have left Washington paralyzed.

This time, fortunately, enough fair-minded, results-oriented Democrats forced their colleagues to accept the reality that the Senate bill was the only viable vehicle. Some of them are members of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus who wanted to get the money to the children at the border immediately.

They noted that the top two House Democrats – Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer – had called the Senate bill “good,” although they preferred the House version. The House eventually passed the Senate bill, 305-102, with most Democrats voting aye. President Trump quickly signed it into law.

It took courage for the Problem Solvers and other realists to publicly state what should have been obvious: Given the Republicans’ control of the Senate and White House, and given the strong bipartisan support for the Senate bill, there was no way to strong-arm the upper chamber into accepting the House version. The only means of getting desperately needed aid to the border was the Senate legislation.

As Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), a co-sponsor of the bill, said: “The images of migrant bodies washed up on the banks of the Rio Grande, and reports of children sleeping in cages without access to toothbrushes and soap, have shocked our nation’s collective conscience. With an administration that has repeatedly shown it could not care less about the increasingly inhumane conditions facing migrants, it was left to Democrats to fight hard to ensure this was a humanitarian-first bill to address the most urgent needs of those seeking refuge at our border. …  Inaction by Congress was simply not an option.”

Now comes the test for the country. Because of their courage, some Democratic pragmatists will be challenged from the hard left in their next primary. The question is whether those of us who believe Congress needs to work collaboratively will back up lawmakers in both parties who are willing to do what it takes to govern. This is the big fight in Washington today.

By preventing the House from reverting to gridlock, the results-oriented pragmatists did what most Americans want and expect. Now, we need to support them, just as they have supported our country and the children at the border who urgently need help. 

Joe Lieberman, a former U.S. senator from Connecticut, is national co-chairman of No Labels, an organization working to create a new center in American politics that puts country before party.

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