Speaker Nancy Pelosi has done a masterful job of holding together her fractious caucus since the Democrats regained the majority in November. But on Thursday the political forces pushing the wings of her party apart became overwhelming. The problem arose over an emergency $4.6 billion spending bill to address the mushrooming humanitarian crisis at America’s southern border. With a vote of 305 to 102 in favor, the Senate-approved version easily cleared the magic 217-vote threshold to pass the lower chamber. But despite the Democratic majority in the House, the bill was carried by Republican votes, along with those of the moderate Democrats who were credited with winning back the majority by flipping seats in Trump Country. When the bill passed early Thursday, rage erupted immediately. “She has the power,” said one disgruntled Democratic staffer, “and she made the wrong decision.”
Among progressives, the bill is viewed as both sorely insufficient and a capitulation to Trump, directing more money to the border with little congressional oversight and no curb on current Trump policies like family separation. “There’s no accountability for the for-profit industry that is intimately involved in the detention of these children,” said Michigan Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, who voted against the measure. “They don’t have any accountability. So we’re giving them a blank check and saying to them, ‘Good luck.’” Moderates, for their part, argued they were just being realistic.
After days of whipping votes and discussions with the Trump administration, Pelosi’s troubles came to a head Thursday morning. During a 9 a.m. leadership meeting, Pelosi signaled that a vote on the Senate-passed legislation might be unavoidable. Initially the plan was to vote on a version that included significant Democratic amendments—provisions to limit the amount of time children can spend in holding facilities to 90 days, less funding for ICE, and to allow lawmakers to make visits to facilities detaining children without notice. But moderate lawmakers, from the Blue Dog Coalition and Problem Solvers Caucus, threatened to tank the vote. They criticized the cuts to ICE, arguing that it would handicap efforts to combat human trafficking, and, as a group of 18, the moderates had the numbers to kill the amended version of the bill, which lacked Republican support, and ramped up pressure on Pelosi to vote on the Senate version.
Meanwhile, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Vice President Mike Pence signaled to Pelosi that the amendments would be nonstarters. The “Senate bill is the only game in town,” McConnell declared.
By the afternoon Pelosi had made her calculation. “The children come first. At the end of the day, we have to make sure that the resources needed to protect the children are available. Therefore, we will not engage in the same disrespectful behavior that the Senate did in ignoring our priorities. In order to get resources to the children fastest, we will reluctantly pass the Senate bill,” the speaker wrote in a letter addressed “Dear Democratic Colleague” around 3 p.m. “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.”
The outcry from progressives was swift. “Since when did the Problem Solvers Caucus become the Child Abuse Caucus?” Mark Pocan, the co-chair of the progressive caucus, wrote on Twitter. A visibly upset Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, walking on the way to votes, could be heard saying, “I’m pissed.”
“This is a co-equal branch of government. We were supposed to do our job and say, ‘Mr. President, great. We’re going to give you this money, but guess what? You’re going to actually have to take them out of the cages,’” Tlaib told me, her voice cracking with emotion. “Instead we just gave them more money to continue the status quo.”
Progressive concerns that the Trump administration cannot be trusted with the funding are not unfounded. On Thursday Vice President Pence and Pelosi reportedly struck a handshake agreement on the 90-day limit on keeping children in holding facilities, and notifying Congress within 24 hours of a death of a child in custody. But at least seven children have already died in government custody, or after being detained at the border, since the Trump administration rolled out its family-separation policy, and the administration has bucked or ignored attempts at congressional oversight. The issue among opponents of the bill is: why should we trust them now? “All those horrific things that we know of that have been happening are probably still going to happen, because the Senate Republican bill does nothing to hold anyone accountable or address that parade of horrors,” a senior democratic aide told me.
Moderates pushed back on these jabs from their left, arguing that they had to do something. “You have to understand: you’re not going to get everything you want,” Congressman Josh Gottheimer, the co-chair of the Problem Solvers Caucus, told Politico after the bill passed in the House. “We just wanted to make sure that none of us went home without getting something done for children and families at the border.”
As the dust settled, there was plenty of blame to go around. Pelosi drew sharp criticism for not fighting harder to tie strings to the legislation, and not choosing to keep her caucus—eager to get out of Washington for the July Fourth recess—on the Hill to negotiate longer. “Forget about if you can’t do it. Fine. But at least try and negotiate. She calls herself a master manipulator. She’s wheeling and dealing, and on this she doesn’t even try for not even a day. She lets these people go home,” the democratic staffer, whose boss voted no on the legislation, told me. “It’s likely that Pelosi knows that this is maybe the best she can get, and what she can get the votes for, but in my view it’s just pitiful that we’re not even trying. Even a moment of engagement to do better would be respectful for the situation.”
Others put the responsibility at the feet of their Democratic colleagues in the Senate. “Chuck Schumer fucked us,” the senior democratic aide told me. Because Senate Democrats fell in line with McConnell and overwhelmingly voted “yes” on the legislation—with seven senators absent for the 2020 debates, it passed 84 to 8—there was no way Pelosi couldn’t take up the bill for a vote, the thinking goes. “The Senate decided to hijack our bill that was sent over there, which I didn’t support, but they sent it back completely bare of any of those protections,” Tlaib told me, exasperated.
But Senate Democrats have stood by the legislation. “No Republican gets everything they want, and no Democrat gets everything they want. Our bill is a good compromise,” said Senator Patrick Leahy, who negotiated the bill with Republican Senator Richard Shelby. A source familiar with the matter said House leadership never asked Senate Democrats to block the border bill in the upper chamber, which passed the appropriations committee on a wide bipartisan basis of 30 to 1 last week. And notably, Republican leadership put the border bill that passed the House on Tuesday to a vote in the Senate, but it failed, 37 to 55.
“Senate Democrats were with the House Dems all the way, but their bill couldn’t pass the Senate. By refusing to participate in a four-corner negotiation for weeks, House Dems never allowed themselves the chance to have a say in a bill that could actually become law,” a senior Democratic Senate aide said. “Everyone wanted to go to conference, but because the House couldn’t produce anything for weeks, they’re blaming everyone but themselves.”
Of course the real blame rests with the Trump administration. As I have previously reported, the humanitarian horrors are a crisis of the Trump administration’s own making. The chaos, however cruel, is meant to be a deterrent. No wonder, then, that progressive Democrats are in no mood to compromise. A third congressional staffer, whose boss voted “no,” characterized the border bill as a “gauze pad” that essentially just throws money at the administration. “We’re just attempting to clot the bleeding. We’re not healing the wound and actually improving the situation.”