Emotion, tears and tense confrontations were on display as House Democrats fought over an emergency border aid bill in a debate that deepened the divide between progressives and moderates, further fracturing the unity Democrats have long trumpeted.
Progressives were outraged when Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced Thursday that the House would take up — and pass — a bill approved by the GOP-controlled Senate, and which progressives argued did not do enough to protect children in government custody. The Senate bill had overwhelming bipartisan support.
Moderate Democrats, on the other hand, argued that they care about the issue just as much and wanted to see aid enacted as quickly as possible, especially as Congress faced a deadline to keep open an important agency that works with refugees. Trying to negotiate the bill could have further delayed funding for what both parties describe as a humanitarian crisis at the border.
The fight proved a high-profile test of Pelosi’s ability to keep her caucus together on one of the most sensitive issues for Democrats: immigration. Democrats maintained a long-running streak of unity when they served in the minority for the previous eight years, but the power of the majority is now exposing a rift that similarly mired the Republican majority.
Pelosi’s predicament this week followed a familiar pattern that overshadowed former Republican House Speaker John Boehner: How to manage one party with a diverse set of beliefs about the most contentious issues. But, unlike on impeachment, which doesn’t have a deadline and has divided Democrats for months, the fight over the border bill could foreshadow a protracted battle over a trio of fall economic deadlines to raise the debt ceiling, stop automatic budget cuts and fund the government for the next fiscal year.
Moderates and progressives vent anger and frustration
In a week dominated by horror stories from detention centers and a viral photo of the tragic death of a migrant man and his daughter in the Rio Grande, lawmakers feverishly tried to pass the border bill that had been in the works for weeks. But drama emerged in the Democratic caucus between those who wanted to extract changes to the Senate bill and those who wanted to get the bill across the finish line quickly.
At one point, tensions escalated to the point that one progressive lawmaker drew a stunning comparison between centrist Democrats and child abusers.
In a dramatic moment, Democratic Rep. Mark Pocan, co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, was spotted in an intense discussion on the House floor with Democratic Rep. Max Rose, a moderate freshman and a member of the bipartisan group of centrists called the Problem Solvers Caucus.
Earlier in the day, Pocan tweeted, “Since when did the Problem Solvers Caucus become the Child Abuse Caucus? Wouldn’t they want to at least fight against contractors who run deplorable facilities? Kids are the only ones who could lose today.”
Pocan confirmed to reporters that Rose confronted him about the tweet, but continued to express frustration.
“They have to be able to recognize why we’re upset,” Pocan said, accusing moderate Democrats of prioritizing leaving for the July Fourth recess over supporting key provisions that progressives wanted in the Senate bill.
When asked what he thought of liberals going after more moderate members, Rose told CNN, “We have to really figure out how to work together.”
“I would never indict any member of the House,” Rose said, adding, “Ultimately, I do want to push the ball forward and try to ease this humanitarian crisis.”
Rep. Stephanie Murphy, a moderate member and refugee herself who is a co-chair of the Blue Dog Coalition, told reporters that she was upset by her progressive colleagues’ accusations that moderates didn’t care as much about the children at the US-Mexico border because they were willing to vote for the Senate bill.
“We are a really diverse and boisterous caucus,” Murphy said, adding, “Everybody should have an opportunity to have a voice and to share their ideas, but for me the ideas that matter the most are the ones that can become law. Because it is only laws that change the lives of my constituents.”
Murphy added that resources were desperately needed at the border as soon as possible. “If you care about those children, then you need to be working to get resources at the border,” she said.
Prominent progressives did not hold back, however, in their criticism of the bill or of the tactics and approach that House leadership took in dealing with the measure.
“We didn’t even bother to negotiate,” freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “The Lead” Thursday. “We are the House of Representatives and we are a House majority and we need to act like it.”
Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota called the outcome sad.
“We had an opportunity to put forth a humanitarian policy and we wasted that opportunity,” Omar said. “I hope that Americans are as appalled as I am.”
In the final vote, members of Pelosi’s own leadership team did not even appear entirely on the same page.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, the No. 2 ranking Democrat, and Majority Whip James Clyburn, the No. 3 ranked Democrat, both voted in support of the Senate bill, while Hakeem Jeffries, the Democratic caucus chair and assistant speaker Ben Ray Lujan both voted against it.
In all, 95 Democrats voted against the bill, while 129 voted in favor.
House progressives — reticent to attack Pelosi by name — were quick to turn their ire on Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the co-chair of the progressive caucus, said she wished Democratic leaders would have voted in larger numbers against the Senate bill. Asked how she’d sway them next time, she said she’d like to see a pharmaceutical drug developed to “grow spines.”
“Listen, I think leader Schumer and all the Senate Democrats have to understand that we need them to stand up and oppose cruelty from this administration,” Jayapal said.
Asked to respond to the progressive outrage in the House, the top Senate Democrat on the Appropriations Committee Patrick Leahy quipped, “I never served in the House. I have never been able to achieve such heights.”
But House Democrats weren’t only pointing fingers at the Senate or House moderates; there was frustration behind the scenes with the progressives, as well, for what multiple members described as letting the perfect get in the way of the good.
One Democratic aide argued progressive leaders were “toxically whipping up” other progressives in the early stages of the bill to get as many of their demands as possible included, making it difficult to strike a deal sooner. “Progressives have to be more cooperative,” the aide said. “They can’t just be bomb throwing.”
Jayapal defended her aggressive push, saying the provisions she sought would not only add protections for children but make sure the administration spent the money as directed.
“We can’t take on a lawless administration by being nice. We have to make it clear what we expect,” she said. “We have to hold back money until they comply and we have to think about the hundreds of hundreds of families that are suffering because of this administration.”
Progressives and moderates have butted heads throughout the year on some key issues. It’s a divide that’s grown increasingly visible, with both sides claiming leverage. Progressives tout a vocal, active and donor-heavy base, while the moderates helped flip dozens of Republican seats to retake the majority. Leaders desperately want to keep the so called majority-maker seats to hold onto power in 2020.
A familiar pattern
Pelosi ultimately added some of the progressives’ provisions to a House version of the bill earlier this week, but the Senate refused to take it up. When the Senate passed their version of the bill by a wide margin, Pelosi faced enormous pressure to comply.
At first, the speaker said she would fight to go to conference rather than take up the Senate bill, but after Senate GOP leaders refused to negotiate, Pelosi reluctantly agreed. She also worked to secure some administrative changes from Vice President Mike Pence.
The Democratic schism comes after nearly a decade of Republican turmoil over immigration, a problem that split the party and ultimately left a bipartisan Senate bill passed in 2013 languishing in the House of Representatives. Before Trump, moderate Republicans harangued their party for anti-immigrant rhetoric and hardline legislation warning it would imperil the GOP’s chances in the 2016 election.
For Democrats, the rift is symptomatic of a diverse caucus, which includes high-profile progressives like Ocasio-Cortez serving alongside moderates like South Carolina Rep. Joe Cunningham and Michigan Rep. Haley Stevens. Campaigning on abolishing ICE in New York City wins primaries. In swing districts in Michigan and South Carolina, it all but guarantees a loss in the general election.
Although the border bill fight was widely framed as a defeat for Pelosi, that doesn’t mean members are publicly abandoning her. Jayapal argued the speaker “was in an impossible position” and “we had no leverage from the Senate Dems.”
Murphy, the co-chair of the Blue Dogs, flatly rejected the idea that Pelosi has lost control of her members. “Speaker Pelosi has a very good feel for the caucus.”