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Pelosi Bows to Conservatives on Border Funding

In the name of party unity, the Speaker again sells out the Progressive Caucus—and stiff-arms the Democratic base.

Mark Wilson/Getty

Nancy Pelosi began Thursday by promising to remember the children. By midafternoon, she forgot them—and called it a “battle cry.”

While much of the media was focused on the first Democratic debate, the Speaker of the House was trying to figure out what to do with the multibillion-dollar border aid bill that had passed the Senate the previous evening with significant bipartisan support. Unlike the House’s version, it contained Defense Department funding and, more notably, funding to address pay shortfalls and overtime costs for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The Senate bill, moreover, did not reinstate aid to Northern Triangle countries the Trump administration cut off earlier in the month. Finally, there was no mention of the numerous items that Pelosi had added in negotiations with House Progressives earlier in the week. Those provisions included requirements that Customs and Border Patrol improve the conditions under which migrants are being held, with better responses to medical emergencies, and proper nutrition, hygiene, and personnel training. In Pelosi’s estimation, the Senate bill did not go far enough to address concerns about the deplorable conditions in U.S. facilities at the border. 

Pelosi and House Democratic leadership had planned to hold the line, amending the Senate bill with their own priorities so they could force negotiations in conference. In a lengthy phone call with Mike Pence, who is overseeing talks while President Trump is in Japan for the G20 summit, Pelosi suggested a number of potential fixes, while the vice president insisted the House take up a clean version of the Senate’s bill.

Pelosi had spent much of the week wrangling her caucus, horse-trading with members across the ideological spectrum in an attempt to keep them in line. But she was in a difficult bind, with progressives advocating for a series of amendments—including cutting funding for ICE—and skittish moderates fretting over the changes. It was, as Politico reported, “perhaps the roughest stretch of Pelosi’s speakership, with clashes between the left and moderate wings on full display and no clear escape to the chaos.” 

But the party’s moderate, corporate-friendly Blue Dog caucus found a way out. Eighteen rebelled against the Speaker, pledging to block the bill if Pelosi brought it to the floor. Stephanie Murphy, who leads the Blue Dog Coalition, told Politico that they had a “significant number” of rebels, while one unnamed representative said “We’re going to see if we can kill it.” These members were most concerned about cuts to ICE, despite the agency’s central role in the country’s brutal incarceration and deportation machine. 

By midday, the House’s attempt to improve the Senate’s bill was dead. Some of the more conservative in the caucus tried to spin this as a fine result. “My understanding is we’re going to do a clean Senate bill. I’ve been saying I’m OK on that,” Democrat Henry Cuellar, who has led negotiations, said. “A lot of this stuff is already there guys, protocols are there.”

By dinnertime, the House had passed the “clean” bill. 

Pelosi released a fiery statement explaining her decision to move forward with the Senate’s version. “In order to get resources to the children fastest, we will reluctantly pass the Senate bill,”  Pelosi wrote in a letter to her caucus. “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.” 

That capital-B-capital-C “Battle Cry” didn’t amount to much—a point reflected by Pelosi’s tortured sentence. Despite promising to protect children, Pelosi got precious little. The bill she brought to the floor was the Senate’s, with none of the progressive conditions. The important provisions helping those detained at the border, the ones Pelosi made the focal point of her strategy, didn’t make it in. Instead, according to The New York Times, Pence pledged “that the administration would voluntarily abide by some of the restrictions she had sought, including notifying lawmakers within 24 hours after the death of a migrant child in government custody, and placing a 90-day time limit on children spending time in temporary intake facilities, according to a person familiar with the discussions.” But that doesn’t amount to much, given who is in charge of this administration. 

It’s not clear if Pelosi could have done much more. Senate Democrats put her in a terrible position by joining overwhelmingly with the GOP majority in the passage their bill, giving Mitch McConnell leverage to force this bill through Congress before the July 4 recess. With dozens of Democrats joining him and no Republicans backing Pelosi, McConnell could hold out, knowing that the Speaker wanted to pass something quickly. 

Pelosi has always worked overtime to avoid the appearance of disunity in her caucus, and here, the rebel Blue Dogs threatened discord over a contentious election issue. But given the horrific conditions on the southern border, it’s unacceptable to settle for so little—to say nothing of it coming in a worthless pledge from a worthless vice president. It also only emboldens a tiny minority of Democrats intent on resisting progress—and, as an indirect result, aiding the administration’s brutal and inhumane immigration policy. 

Wednesday night’s debate showed a party, cognizant of its voters, racing to the left. But Pelosi’s decision to cave to her caucus’ right flank revealed the leadership now in office might need better directions.