House Democrats’ first major legislative defeat in their new majority unfolded sloppily on Thursday over legislation to address the humanitarian crisis on the southern border leaving the ascendant progressive faction of the party enraged and claiming they got thrown under the bus.
They just couldn’t agree on who pushed them.
House progressives had spent a week successfully fighting to put strings on $4.5 billion in special funding for a border package, in hopes of denying the Trump administration more resources to carry out elements of the immigration policy that Democrats loathe.
The Senate had other ideas, and on Wednesday passed with an overwhelming, bipartisan majority a funding package without the progressives’ much-desired conditions. As Speaker Nancy Pelosi prepared to make a counter-offer, a faction of centrist Democrats revolted and forced a quick House vote on the Senate’s measure, which ultimately passed by a safe margin, leaving lawmakers free to jet home for the July 4 recess.
The defeat left progressives stunned, fuming, and pondering how, going forward, they could effectively leverage Democrats’ House majority with an increasingly fractious caucus and a GOP all too eager to exploit their internal divides.
The easiest target, in the eyes of some Democrats, was the so-called Problem Solvers Caucus. Some of the roughly two-dozen Democratic members of this bipartisan group of centrists threatened to kill the progressive-driven effort to amend the House’s bill to send back to the Senate, cutting short the fight many liberal lawmakers wanted on border provisions. With a long recess looming, and facing pressure from the White House and the Senate, the moderates wanted to scuttle a protracted negotiation and bring home to their constituents a badly-needed marker of progress on the border crisis.
Frustration at this centrist faction had already been simmering for months on Capitol Hill, and their move on Thursday burst that enmity out into the open. “The quote-unquote Problem Solvers Caucus, I think, threw us under the bus and undermined our position to actually be able to negotiate,” said Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ).
Adding lighter fuel to the fire was a tweet from Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI), the co-chair of the Progressive Caucus, declaring that the Problem Solvers Caucus might as well be called the “Child Abuse Caucus” — a claim that raised eyebrows even among staunchly progressive lawmakers.
Talking to reporters, Pocan defended his inflammatory language. “If you faciliate taking out the language that takes away the ability to pull a contract from a bad firm that’s doing child abuse,” he said, “I think that’s a pretty fair characterization.”
Progressives had pushed for language in the bill that would have spelled out protections for migrant children. That provision, among others in the House, was rejected by Senate Republicans and the White House, effectively dooming its progress.
The other co-chair of the Progressive Caucus, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), wouldn’t say if Pocan had gone too far in calling his colleagues child abusers. She had a different target: Senate Democrats.
“Once the Senate Democrats voted with such a big vote, that took away a lot of our leverage,” said Jayapal. “And they’re wrong.”
On Wednesday, only six Senate Democrats voted against the so-called “clean” border supplemental funding bill. Notably, that bill contained increased funding for Immigration and Customs Enforcement — an agency that House progressives don’t want to send another dime.
“I think Senate Democrats need to wake up and stop voting with Mitch McConnell,” said Jayapal, “and allow us to have some leverage so that we can actually use our majority in the House.”
The chief of staff for Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-NY), Saikat Chakrabarti, took it a step further in a tweet that he deleted shortly after.
“Instead of ‘fiscally conservative but socially liberal’ let’s call the New Democrats and Blue Dog Caucus the ‘New Southern Democrats,’” he wrote. “They certainly seem hell bent to do to black and brown people today what the old Southern Democrats did in the 40s.”
He back tracked in two tweets after deleting the first.
To other House Democrats, the true blame lay with McConnell, the GOP Senate Majority Leader, who had been locked in a weeks-long battle with Pelosi to block the border language pushed by Democrats. President Trump had floated a threat to veto anything he didn’t like.
“I don’t think this problem was the Problem Solvers,” said Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI). “The problem was principally Mitch McConnell. That’s who the villain of this story is.”
Above the fray of finger-pointing was Democrats’ House leader. Among several of the nearly 100 Democrats who voted down the border funding package, there was hardly a sense Pelosi had blown it — even though her leadership team was unable to tamp down the revolt from the Problem Solvers that tanked their preferred version of the bill.
“She controlled the issue all the way through,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ). “I’m not worried about Pelosi’s leadership. She did the job of keeping this issue alive… The capitulation by the Problem Solvers and the Blue Dogs gave us no leverage here.”
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which vehemently opposed the Senate package, named no names in their joint statement on Thursday’s vote except for Trump’s. But the sentiment was clear.
“What happened today is unacceptable,” they said, “and we will not forget this betrayal.”