A sweeping $400 billion budget passed both chambers of Congress in the wee hours of Friday morning with a mix of Democratic and Republican votes, leaving those anxious to protect roughly 700,000 young immigrants without a way to force a vote to restore the legal protections President Trump revoked last year.
The papers of many people in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program will expire on March 5, and the short-term budget blows past that deadline, funding the government until March 23 and raising the debt ceiling until mid-2019. If Congress fails to agree on a permanent solution for DACA recipients in the next few weeks—or even a short-term punt many lawmakers see as a “Plan Z”—young immigrants who have grown up in the United States and registered with the government could be deported later this year.
With that threat looming, many Democrats in the House and Senate called on their colleagues to block the budget bill’s passage, threatening a longer-than-eight-hours government shutdown in the hopes of pressuring Republican leaders to bring a bipartisan DACA bill up for a vote. But enough Democrats broke ranks and voted for the bill to send it to the White House for Trump’s signature, leaving no other must-pass piece of legislation on the table before the program expires.
“All leverage is gone,” a grim-faced Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) told reporters before the vote. “Back in September, we said we would have leverage on the budget and on the debt ceiling. Now, we’re giving it all up. Once you’ve lifted the caps, do you really believe anybody is going to take us seriously?”
“It’s folly,” he continued bitterly. “You guys are going to laugh, as well you should.”
When the Senate failed to pass a short-term budget a couple of weeks ago, triggering a multi-day government shutdown, Democrats who opposed the bill argued that their vote was not simply over DACA, but also in protest of a lack of funding for Community Health Centers, disaster relief for Puerto Rico, and funding to address the opioid crisis. In this most recent bill, all of Democrats’ demands except DACA were met, turning up the political pressure.
“They gave us everything,” Gutierrez said. “They got religion on CHIP. They got religion on infrastructure. So many wonderful, beautiful things.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) attempted to thread the needle by personally vowing to vote no, by urging her colleagues to vote no, and by giving the longest House floor speech in more than 100 years demanding Republicans allow a fair, bipartisan DACA debate. But House members conceded to TPM that Pelosi’s team did not significantly pressure Democrats to hold the line, as they did on the tax bill and the Obamacare repeal bill.
“There are moments when leadership has whip operations in which there are draconian if not dire consequences to members who don’t follow the path,” Gutierrez said. “Now, there is a whip operation, but it was basically informational. It was, ‘How do you feel? Are you feeling okay today? If not, that’s okay.'”
After more than 70 House Democrats voted to pass the budget, DACA recipients and their allies were furious.
“Democrats threw Dreamers under the bus again,” Erika Andiola, a DACA recipient and former congressional staffer posted on social media. “It’s so easy to use us as props when in CA, NV, CO, etc during election time, but we have always been an afterthought; a political football.”
Greisa Martinez Rosas, the advocacy director of the group United We Dream and a Dreamer herself, accused Pelosi and her party of having “sold out the Dreamers.”
“We are tired of speeches, tweets and promises that are not followed by solutions,” she wrote. “This is especially true for Democrats and moderate Republicans who say that they support us when the cameras are rolling but repeatedly cave to Trump’s bullying.”
The last government shutdown extracted from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) a promise to open up the Senate floor for a debate on DACA this week, in which Democrats and Republicans would be able to propose amendments. Some House members believed that blocking this latest spending bill in the House could extract a similar concession from Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), who is currently refusing to hold a vote on any immigration bill that doesn’t already have President Trump’s backing.
But some Democrats, including House Budget Committee ranking member Rep. John Yarmuth (D-KY), said that strategy would have hurt the party politically while achieving nothing.
“I don’t think we were ever going to get DACA through the budget process,” he said. “I think it would have been a problem if we had ended up shutting the government down over DACA.”
Yarmuth was a member of the ill-fated “Gang of Eight” immigration reform effort in 2013, which saw the Senate pass a bill to give millions of undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship only to have the effort die in the House without so much as a vote. Yarmuth acknowledged that history could very well repeat itself in the coming weeks.
“Yeah, it’s a huge fear,” he said. “Nancy’s right that we need to put pressure on Ryan to allow bills to come to the floor. The question is: what’s the best way to put pressure and what are the risks?”
Having voted to raise the debt ceiling, lift the sequester caps, and keep the government’s lights on, Democrats have no real means left of pressuring Republicans to hold a vote. Nearly a dozen meetings between House and Senate leaders in both parties have gone nowhere, and while a large bipartisan group of rank-and-file senators insist they’re making progress on an immigration agreement, they have yet to rally around any one piece of legislation. It’s not clear what provisions, if any, can clear 60 votes.
Already, in anticipation of the failure to agree on a permanent solution for DACA recipients, senators are drafting legislative text that would give them temporary protection paired with a couple years of funding for the U.S.-Mexico border. Whether even that short-term, bare bones policy could pass the House is unclear, with GOP leaders insisting on only voting on bills President Trump supports, and the White House continuing to demand controversial cuts to legal, family-based immigration.
Yet even after watching a string of immigration reform efforts fail before reaching the President’s desk over the past few years, Yarmuth’s hope springs eternal.
“If the Senate can pass something, it would put enormous pressure on Ryan,” he said. “Because if they don’t do something there, then you’re going to start seeing deportations on television every night and that’s going to be impossible for them.”
How impossible the deportations will be for a party that for years has campaigned on the threat of undocumented immigrants, and an administration that paints them as alternately lazy, criminal, and capable of terrorism, remains to be seen.
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