WASHINGTON — Disagreements among Democrats over how to keep fighting to enact legal protections for immigrant "dreamers" boiled over in the office of Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., Thursday as he met with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus in what several participants described as a tense and heated exchange.
In a vivid display of growing divisions in the party over how to fight Republicans on immigration policy, members of the Hispanic Caucus — a 31-member group of House and Senate Democrats — walked off the House floor Thursday afternoon and headed across the U.S. Capitol to Schumer's office suite.
With just a few minutes' notice, they showed up in the lobby of Schumer's office suite across from the Senate floor in hopes of pressing him to convince more senators to vote against the GOP spending plan set to be approved in the coming hours.
Schumer, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and members of the caucus met Wednesday to plot strategy — but the group unanimously agreed it needed to meet again with Schumer to press their case.
The latest short-term spending plan is set for approval as Democrats this week backed off a pledge to force a vote this month over the fate of thousands of undocumented immigrants brought to this country as children, angering immigration activists, thousands of whom barnstormed Capitol Hill this week. But the shift in Democratic tactics averted the threat of a government shutdown at a critical moment in spending negotiations with Republicans and President Donald Trump.
With a deadline of midnight Friday to pass spending legislation, most House Democrats voted against the spending legislation that passed the House on Thursday because Republicans refused to allow a vote on the Dream Act, which would allow roughly 1.2 million immigrants to stay legally in the United States.
But enough Democratic senators are expected to join Republicans in approving the spending plan later Thursday as a group of vulnerable Democratic senators facing reelection in conservative states next year avoid taking steps to cause a government shutdown.
The divide in tactics has angered Hispanic Caucus members and other minority caucuses, who say the party needs to be more aggressive as a March 5 deadline for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program growing closer.
Several people who attended the meeting, granted anonymity to describe what was expected to be a private exchange, said the meeting with Schumer began with cordial remarks by Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, D-N.M., who chairs the Hispanic Caucus.
But Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill. — arguably the most outspoken Democrat on immigration matters — spoke next and unloaded on Schumer, accusing him and Democratic senators of not caring about the fate of dreamers and "throwing them under the bus" in the ongoing spending debate with Republicans, participants said.
In response, Schumer raised his voice, telling Gutierrez not to insult fellow Democrats.
Gutierrez shot back, telling Schumer: "Don't raise your voice."
Most of the other 16 members of the caucus in the meeting respectfully, if sternly, shared their concerns, the participants said. But a few other caucus members made pointed comments toward Schumer.
Rep. Tony Cardenas, D-Calif., who represents parts of Los Angeles and oversees the caucus's PAC that helps bankroll the campaigns of Latino congressional candidates, told Schumer that Latinos lawmakers expect "no more mañanas" — no more "tomorrows" — when it comes to immigration.
Another member in the room explained the comment, saying: "We've seen more mañanas on things related to immigration from the House and Senate for more than a decade. We're tired of it."
"We went there to urge Schumer for as many no votes as they could, given their situation," added the member.
Rep. Albio Sires, D-N.J., an imposing lawmaker from northern New Jersey known for his blunt delivery, pressed Schumer to explain how he would convince more senators to vote against the spending bill.
And Rep. Jimmy Gomez, D-Calif., who represents a central Los Angeles district that is among the most Latino in the country, warned Schumer that Gomez, other California lawmakers and the party overall will face a political backlash from their Latino supporters in the coming weeks if Democrats fail to work with Republicans to protect dreamers.
The tense exchange came as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., signaled Thursday that he will permit a vote on a bipartisan immigration plan in January if Democratic and Republican senators negotiating a potential deal are able to present him with a plan after the holidays.
"If this group — and it includes pretty diverse views, everybody from Dick Durbin, D-Ill., to Tom Cotton, R-Ark., — can come up with a bipartisan proposal dealing not only with the children, but other related issues that they can agree on, we'll give floor time to that sometime in January as well," McConnell said in an interview with The Washington Post.
McConnell couldn't say whether a bipartisan plan enacted by the Senate could survive in the House.
"You'd have to ask Paul, I can only deal with what I've got here," McConnell said.
Ultimately, Schumer's meeting with Latino House Democrats ended with an understanding that more Democratic senators were expected to vote against the GOP spending plan. Two weeks ago, just 14 Democratic senators voted against the plan.
"We understand the anxiety of the Hispanic caucus and share their anguish on this issue. We're going to do everything we can to get the Dream Act done," Schumer said in a statement responding to inquiries about the meeting.
Gutierrez later tweeted:
This fight continues in January & I think Dems are on same page now. Good of the country must outweigh any political calculations, therefore we'll be moving forward on #DreamAct under leadership of @RepLujanGrisham @NancyPelosi @SenSchumer & allies in House & Senate. https://t.co/qbUFCSkf8c— Luis V. Gutierrez (@RepGutierrez) December 21, 2017
The Washington Post's Paul Kane contributed to this report.