Congressional Democrats are approaching their final leverage point this week before a critical March 5 deadline to force a vote on legal protections for undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children—and the party’s leadership is feeling the heat from its rank-and-file members who are warning of a large-scale sellout of the Democratic base.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) sent shockwaves through Capitol Hill on Wednesday when she announced that she would not back a bipartisan, bicameral budget deal slated for a vote on Thursday because it did not include those protections for DREAMers. She then launched a record-setting filibuster of sorts for eight hours, during which she stood on the House floor and read statements from DREAMers.
But many Democrats are openly worried that Pelosi speech will amount to just a plea to Republicans with no reason to heed it.
“The fact that you have not heard from the Democratic party, the Democratic caucus—you would think that there would be hashtags galore supporting this effort, this unprecedented effort of Nancy Pelosi. But it’s not a coordinated effort, is it?” Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) told reporters as Pelosi’s speech was approaching its seventh hour. At the same time, the hashtag #GoNancyGo was being used by activists and lawmakers, and the minority leader’s speech was trending nationally on social media.
Gutierrez and his allies in the Hispanic Caucus are warning their fellow Democrats that Thursday’s vote on the budget—ahead of a midnight deadline to avert a second government shutdown in less than a month—is their last point of leverage before next month’s deadline to reinstate DREAMer protections under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that President Donald Trump rescinded last year.
After that point, Democrats will have no tangible way to compel House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) to act on an immigration bill that the Senate sends over. Ryan has maintained that the House will vote on a measure that has President Donald Trump’s support, and that passes muster with a majority of House Republicans.
“The only way to get this done is by attaching it to something that must pass the House of Representatives, that must pass the Senate,” Gutierrez added. “And we’re not doing that—look, what negotiation around our budget is left once you’ve lifted the caps?”
The Illinois lawmaker has been a central figure in Democrats’ fight on the immigration issue. In recent days, he has threatened to leave the Democratic party altogether over its perceived unwillingness to fight hard enough for DREAMer protections. Pelosi’s marathon speech on Wednesday renews a battle that Senate Democrats fought last month, forcing a government shutdown and in turn securing a commitment from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to advance immigration legislation in early February.
On Wednesday, Gutierrez said he expects Pelosi to follow through on her public plea by ensuring that Democrats do not give Republicans the votes to pass the budget deal in the House. If she doesn’t, Gutierrez said, “then it was a nice speech”—and Republicans will call their bluff.
“The Republican party is not going to take us seriously if all we do is cry wolf. It’s like our bark. We need to fight,” he added.
Gutierrez and his allies on Capitol Hill have been trying for months to tie DREAMer protections to a must-pass spending bill because a clean DREAM Act on its own has no viable path to becoming law. While Pelosi is seeking a commitment from Ryan to take up an immigration bill in the same manner as McConnell promised, Gutierrez dismissed that.
With those competing priorities and the lack of a unified strategy between Democratic leaders and their rank-and-file members, it’s unlikely that such a deal could be cobbled together before Thursday night’s deadline to avert a government shutdown. A bipartisan group of moderate lawmakers urged Ryan to give Democrats the same commitment as McConnell on immigration, but Ryan would have no reason to even consider doing that unless a majority of Democrats held firm in blocking passage of the budget deal.
With hardline fiscal conservatives expected to break from GOP leadership over some provisions of the budget, the legislation will need the backing of dozens of Democrats in order to pass.
The announcement of the budget framework on Wednesday spurred reactions from the bases of both both political parties. The American Civil Liberties Union warned that Democrats are “on the brink of breaking their promise” by voting for the deal, while conservative grassroots organizations said the budget, as crafted, is a betrayal of fiscal responsibility that Republicans had long championed.
The framework is expected to receive the backing of moderate Republicans, in particular those who have long sought increases in defense spending. But the plan faces a tough road ahead with everyone else.
“This is must-pass. We have to keep the government open. We have to adequately fund our military,” Rep. Ryan Costello (R-PA) said. “I understand that we have to cut spending, but this is not the vehicle with which to do it at this time given where we are.”
Costello suggested it was naive for Democrats to think that “we’re going to get the most sensible, practical solution to a number of vexing problems within the immigration debate” by trying to force a vote on the matter by Thursday night.
Some conservatives came out against the budget deal immediately after Republican leaders briefed them, arguing that the proposed spending cuts do not go far enough to mitigate the impact on the national debt.
“This spending bill is a debt-junkie’s dream. In all probability, it will embark America on a trillion-dollar per year deficit, until such time as we suffer debilitating insolvency and bankruptcy with all the hardship that would ensue. I’m not only a no. I’m a hell no,” Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL), a member of the hardline House Freedom Caucus, told reporters.
“Quite frankly, I’m astonished that the Republican party seems to be the party of big government at this day and age,” Brooks added. “Those who vote for this bill are betraying our country’s future, and they’re selling out our kids and grandkids by making them suffer under the burden of tens of trillions of dollars in debt that they cannot possibly pay.”