Politics

House Dems pick party unity over ICE fight

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House Democratic leaders are likely to duck what could be their best chance to force President Donald Trump to fix squalid conditions at the border, out of fear of stirring up further infighting in the caucus.

Democrats are pushing to relieve congested detention facilities for migrants and demand accountability from the White House. But a bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security — which could be used to spur action at the border — is deeply contentious and the party is wrestling with whether it’s worth a vote.

Democrats fear a fight over funding DHS and immigration will only worsen tensions that roiled the caucus during last month’s debate over humanitarian aid at the border. And it could put some liberals into a nearly impossible corner, effectively forcing them to vote to approve money to agencies like Immigration and Customs Enforcement they want to abolish.

“It’s deeply difficult, with the cruelty and the abuses that are happening,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said in an interview. “To give more money — it’s just impossible for some people to vote for that.”

Pressure on lawmakers to address immigration and the humanitarian border crisis has only increased with Trump threatening to deploy his ICE officials to conduct deportation raids in nearly a dozen cities this weekend.

While many Democrats are eager to use an upcoming DHS funding bill to force concessions from the Senate and the White House that Republicans rejected just weeks ago, they are also introducing legislation to limit family separation and increase training for immigration officials, such as Texas Rep. Veronica Escobar’s bill that will be considered on the House floor later this month. Additionally, Democrats have held a series of hearings and news conferences to protest Trump’s policies in recent days.

Still, even Escobar said she wanted to see Democrats vote on DHS funding legislation before the August recess.

“Obviously that would be my preference. And I’ve shared my views with Lucille,” Escobar said of Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the subcommittee that oversees federal immigration funding. “But she’s a smart strategist so she knows what she’s doing.”

Escobar and others argue that a must-pass bill to fund DHS would hold more leverage with the Senate than other legislation on the floor.

But that funding debate — which would be far more sprawling than last month’s humanitarian bill — could dredge up even uglier intraparty fights on immigration, such as whether to defund ICE or put strict caps on detention beds.

It’s a headache that Democrats say is not worth fighting when the same issues are likely to resurface in this fall’s larger battle over spending with Republicans. Plus, they say there’s little point in voting on a DHS funding bill that looks more like a progressive wish list than a serious opening bid to this fall’s funding talks.

“I don’t think it will accomplish anything right now,” House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) said in an interview.

Many would rather sidestep another major fight over immigration that could roil both liberals and moderates and endanger another blowup like the brawl over humanitarian aid in June that has shaken the caucus.

Democrats say they aren’t turning their backs on the humanitarian crisis. The House will vote this month on a batch of bills to create standards of medical care for migrants and to ramp up Congress’ oversight over border patrol officials. But even some Democrats acknowledge the bills are largely symbolic, slated to go nowhere in the Senate.

“It’s really tricky,” said Roybal-Allard, the lead negotiator on the DHS funding bill who also worked closely with progressives and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus last month.

She said, for example, ICE is criticized for deportations but also plays a role in combating human trafficking.

“Is it worth moving forward when we know what the Senate and the president have already said?” she said, adding that the House has a long to-do list in the coming weeks. “Where do we put all of our energy?”

But even if House Democrats shy away from the immigration battle now, the thorny issue will surely crop back up in September as congressional leaders negotiate a funding package to keep the government open.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and other congressional leaders of both parties are in talks with the White House to pass a massive budget deal this month that would raise the debt ceiling and set overall spending levels for the next two years.

But even if Congress approves the deal, lawmakers in both parties will have to agree on a dozen funding bills to keep the government open beyond Sept. 30 — or pass a short-term budget bill and revisit the negotiations later in the fall.

Either way, immigration is sure to be a part of the debate. The previous funding fight led to the government partially shutting down for 35 days in a standoff over Trump’s border wall.

“Now I think a lot of that leverage is gone,” Rep. Filemon Vela (D-Texas) said of the humanitarian aid fight. Vela, whose district borders Mexico, led more than a dozen House Democrats on a visit to migrant detention facilities this past weekend. “But in this place, leverage always pops right back up at some point, you just never know when.”

Some Democrats say the caucus should confront DHS funding directly on the floor regardless of the infighting that could result.

“I think there are difficult conversations that have to be had,” said Rep. Juan Vargas (D-Calif.), who wants to debate the DHS funding bill. “This is something that’s uncomfortable for a lot of people to talk about, there might be another skirmish on the floor. We may be divided, but we should talk about it, we have to.”

Rep. Joaquin Castro, chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, told reporters Friday that he did believe the DHS bill would be addressed on the floor eventually but was “mostly concerned” about ensuring there are safeguards for migrants in place.

And Jayapal, head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said her caucus has not backed a specific strategy.

“Whatever the process is, whether it’s brought to the floor or not, we have been making it clear that we need to weigh in on this bill,” she said.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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