Washington, D.C.

In defeat, Pelosi agrees to pass Senate border bill without House conditions

'In order to get resources to the children fastest, we will reluctantly pass the Senate bill'
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) arrives to a press conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 27, 2019.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) arrives to a press conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 27, 2019.

WASHINGTON — Speaker Nancy Pelosi capitulated Thursday to Republicans and moderates in her own party by agreeing to a Senate humanitarian aid package that jettisons the House’s strict protections for migrant children in overcrowded shelters on the border with Mexico.

The decision came after a striking display of disarray and was an unusual setback for Pelosi, who has been adept at navigating the political complexities of a caucus split by powerful progressive and moderate factions that often work at cross purposes. On Thursday, their priorities clashed in spectacular fashion, and the speaker — who had put her reputation on the line, calling herself a “lioness” out to protect children as she held out for stronger protections in migrant facilities that house them — had to accept defeat.

“In order to get resources to the children fastest, we will reluctantly pass the Senate bill,” Pelosi said in a letter to Democratic lawmakers. “As we pass the Senate bill, we will do so with a battle cry as to how we go forward to protect children in a way that truly honors their dignity and worth.”

Her retreat came after Vice President Mike Pence gave Pelosi private assurances that the administration would voluntarily abide by some of the restrictions and rules that she had sought, including notifying lawmakers within 24 hours after the death of a migrant child in government custody, and placing a 90-day limit on children spending time in temporary intake facilities, according to a person familiar with the discussions.

A last-minute revolt by centrist lawmakers ensured defeat for Pelosi’s efforts to toughen the conditions in the Senate’s $4.6 billion bill. The moderate Democrats balked at a funding reduction for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, leaving the House floor in chaos and emotions running high. Pelosi had little choice but to accept the less restrictive Senate bill, which had passed on a lopsided bipartisan vote this week and would do far less to rein in President Donald Trump’s immigration crackdown.

“We already have our compromise,” Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the majority leader, said on the Senate floor, calling his chamber’s bill “the only game in town.”

“It’s time to quit playing games,” he added. “Time to make law.”

Liberal Democrats were left infuriated.

“No one should be advocating for the Republican proposal in the Senate if you’re in the House, especially given we had a strong vote from our caucus,” said Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., a chairman of the progressive caucus. “I just would hate to try to explain that back home.”

On Twitter, he later singled out the Problem Solvers Caucus, a group of 23 Democrats and 23 Republicans, for their push to consider the Senate bill, asking “since when did the Problem Solvers Caucus become the Child Abuse Caucus?”

Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., said, “We are really, truly creating a whole generation of children that won’t forget what we did.”

But the House Democrats’ left flank was defeated by the party’s moderates. Opposition from the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition and several lawmakers from Republican-leaning districts had forced House Democrats to delay a vote to bring up their measure in an embarrassing display of disarray. Moderate Democrats had threatened to vote against the rule for debate on the modified bill, a show of disloyalty to the leadership that is almost unheard-of under Pelosi.

“They are melting down, in disarray, and it’s the easiest thing in the world to do,” crowed Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the No. 2 Republican. “There’s a bipartisan bill to solve a crisis. Everybody in this town knows the Senate bill is going to pass. Everybody knows how it’s going to end.”

Moderate Democrats privately told House Democratic leaders that they were wary of supporting a bill that provided less money for ICE that could later be used against them in their reelection campaigns to portray them as weak on immigration enforcement, according to two lawmakers and several aides familiar with the discussions who described them on the condition of anonymity.

The squabbling grew intense on the House floor Thursday afternoon, as a scrum of the moderate members huddled in tense discussion about how to proceed. At least one, Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., grew visibly emotional and at one point stormed out red-faced, barking at a reporter who tried to interview her: “I do not want to talk!”

The legislation has posed a tricky political test for Pelosi, whose caucus has been deeply divided by it. Liberals, including some Hispanic lawmakers, balked at the bill this week because they feared it would only enable Trump’s harsh immigration tactics by funding the very agencies that have carried them out. They threatened to withhold their votes, insisting on adding new restrictions and stiffer standards for facilities that house migrant children, as well as more conditions on how the funding would be spent. In the end, almost every Democrat supported the resulting House bill.

But on Thursday, another proposed change, an $81 million cut for ICE, set off a brush fire on the right of the caucus.

Rep. Raul Ruiz of California, a medical doctor who trained in refugee assistance at Harvard and drafted the Democrats’ humanitarian standards, said that merely increasing funding for medical care, shelter and other needs would not be enough when a Justice Department lawyer argued in court that Customs and Border Protection may not be required to provide soap and toothbrushes for children in custody.

“This bill will fund a dysfunctional system,” he said. “There are no standards that will force them to comply and be accountable to a basic level of humanitarian treatment and humanitarian needs.”

While the bill would significantly increase the funds available to shelter migrants, he said, “It doesn’t say that an individual should have at least a 2-meter-square space; it doesn’t say that temperatures should be kept in a humane range; it doesn’t say that lights and noise should be off between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. so we can respect the sleep of the families which is necessary for health.”

Tragic images of the migrant crisis and details of the horrid conditions migrant families and their children face in overcrowded, squalid detention centers and facilities have intensified the urgency to pass any legislation, but it also hardened some of the Democrats’ resolve to fight for tougher oversight in the bill.

“It’s difficult to see how anyone would object to some protections that would enhance protection of children and transparency,” said Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, the chairman of the House Rules Committee.

But Republicans argued that the overwhelming bipartisan vote on the Senate bill — and the blunt rejection of the House’s initial legislation — showed that the core bill should be allowed to move forward without changes.

“You’re going down a path that doesn’t ensure a presidential signature,” warned Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the House Rules Committee. “Frankly, I have some concerns that even the Senate version meets the definition of what the president will sign.”

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