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Emerging border security deal will be first big test of Democratic unity

With some barrier funding expected, vote may show fractures among new House majority

Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., said he expects to oppose whatever border security funding agreement appropriators reach because he does not support any funding for a border barrier. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., said he expects to oppose whatever border security funding agreement appropriators reach because he does not support any funding for a border barrier. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

When it comes to legislating, House Democrats are still in the honeymoon stage of their new majority. They haven’t had to take any difficult votes yet. But the rocky period is coming, and it will likely start next week with a vote on a border security funding package. 

House and Senate appropriators serving on a Homeland Security funding conference committee signaled Thursday that they’re narrowing in on a border security deal that could be finalized and ready for floor votes next week ahead of a Feb. 15 government funding deadline. 

While there’s no agreement yet, many of the conferees were optimistic — some more than others — that they’d reach one Friday or over the weekend, providing enough time to draft and file legislation that the House and Senate could advance to President Donald Trump’s desk by the end of next week.

Details of the emerging deal are scant, but appropriators from both parties acknowledge it would include some funding for a physical border barrier. And that will be a hard sell to many House Democrats.

“The Republicans and the White House are saying they need barriers, wall, whatever you want to call it and that is an absolute objective, and we’re saying we want some other things,” House Democratic conferee Lucille Roybal-Allard of California said. “Like anything else, it’s a trade-off.”

Most Democrats are vehemently opposed to a border wall, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has said she’s staying out of the conference committee negotiations, has stated that won’t be part of any final deal. But in recent weeks, Democrats have shown a willingness to discuss funding for some physical barriers, namely fencing, in the interest of getting a deal. 

Also watch: Democrats downplay appearance of disunity on Green New Deal

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‘I can’t vote for that’

Yet, there are several progressive and Hispanic members who have been clear that they can’t support any funding for a physical barrier. So whatever deal the appropriators reach will surely result in some Democratic defections. 

“I can say that I want to wait and see, that I will — that’s the prudent thing to do — but I want to be consistent, and I can’t vote for that,” Arizona Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva said of a border security deal with funding for a physical barrier. 

He’s unlikely to be the only Democrat who will feel that strongly. The former Congrssional Progressive Caucus co-chairman acknowledged as much but didn’t want to guess how many members would vote against whatever the conference committee comes up with, saying, “There’ll be a lot of pressure not to close government.”

As great as that pressure will be, there will be Democrats who can’t get to yes.

“I think some people have taken positions that they’re not going to be able to extricate themselves from,” Connecticut Rep. John B. Larson said. 

Asked Thursday if she thinks she would lose a bunch of Democrats on any compromise because of barrier funding, Pelosi said, “I hope not. I certainly hope not.”

House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn said he hasn’t conducted an official count of Democrats who won’t vote for any amount of border barrier funding, but he’s not concerned about a deal fracturing the caucus.

“I have complete faith and confidence in these conferees, and if they come out there with what I hope will be unanimous support, it would be what they think is in the best interest of the caucus and the country, and I would be supportive of [that],” the South Carolina Democrat said.

Key threshold?

House Republicans had an unofficial rule during their time in the majority that they wouldn’t bring bills to the floor that didn’t have the support of at least half of their conference.

Democrats should have no problem clearing that bar, but a threshold to watch will be 18 — the amount of votes they could lose from their own party and still pass a bill without Republican support.

While any bipartisan deal will likely draw support from a majority of both parties, Democrats frequently criticized Republicans for not being able to pass spending bills on their own and likely would prefer not to be in the same position. 

For many Democrats, problematic provisions in the conference report would extend beyond money for a border barrier to funding that would support the Trump administration’s immigration enforcement and detention practices that they’ve labeled as aggressive and “inhumane.”

For example, 21 members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus wrote a letter to the conference committee this week, saying they oppose any increases in funding for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection agencies that could be used for immigration detention, “Trump’s deportation force” or a border wall.

“Right now we trust the appropriators to negotiate in a manner that’s consistent with what the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and Democrats support in the House. But we tried to lay out as plain as possible our red lines,” Hispanic Caucus Chairman Joaquin Castro, who led the letter, told Roll Call on Thursday.

The Texas Democrat said he’s not yet sure whether he and his like-minded caucus members could support a deal that included some compromise funding for a physical barrier.

“It’s hard to say right now without knowing what the final details are of the legislation, but every once in a while, you do have major pieces of legislation around here that do split up the Hispanic Caucus and the Democratic Caucus,” he said. “I can’t say right now whether this will be one of them.”

‘Lack of understanding’

Roybal-Allard, one of three conferees who are members of the Hispanic Caucus, acknowledged that some Democrats may not be willing to accept whatever trade-offs are made to get to a deal. 

“Possibly,” she said when asked if a sizable number of Democrats may vote against any deal the conference committee reaches. 

“In some cases, there’s a total lack of understanding of the role of these agencies,” she said. “For example, CBP, they play a critical role … with commerce, interdiction of drugs and trafficking. ICE plays a critical role. It isn’t just rounding up people, there’s our cybersecurity, human trafficking drugs.”

Some progressives, like New York freshman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, campaigned on abolishing ICE and will not back any deal providing funding for the agency, whether an increase or not. Last month, Ocasio-Cortez was the only Democrat to vote against a stopgap spending bill to reopen the government because it included funding for ICE, albeit just a continuation of the previous fiscal year’s funding.

“An agency like ICE, which repeatedly and systemically violates human rights, does not deserve a dime,“ Ocasio-Cortez said Thursday at a press conference with outside progressive groups, including Indivisible, United We Dream, CASA and, to announce a petition to cut funding for “the deportation force.”

Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ayanna S. Pressley of Massachusetts also participated in the press conference and are signaling they’d oppose a border security funding compromise. 

“We are here to draw a line in the sand in the name of love and in the name of justice,” Pressley said. “It is clear that we must reduce and not increase funds to DHS.”

A Democratic leadership aide dismissed the progressives who don’t want to fund ICE or CBP as a “small  group” and suggested Pelosi picked the conference committee negotiators she did for a reason.

“Pelosi is no fool,” the aide said. “Look at the liberals she has on the committee to give folks cover.”

California Rep. Barbara Lee, a former Progressive Caucus chairwoman, is among the six House Democratic conferees. Roybal-Allard is also a Progressive Caucus member.

Open minds

Leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus appear open to a border security compromise but said it would depend on the details. 

“Let’s just see what’s exactly in there, but I think there has been unanimity [that] an actual border wall will be a terrible idea and something that’s unlikely to fly by the caucus,” Progressive Caucus Co-chairman Mark Pocan said, noting that there’s more openness to things such as rebuilding of fencing.

Trump will try to say there’s money for the wall in any deal, the Wisconsin Democrat said, noting Pelosi warned caucus leaders of that during a meeting Wednesday evening. 

“There are three flower arrangements on the table. We’re having a conversation, and she goes, ‘The president will call that a wall, if he has to, to claim a victory,’” Pocan recalled. 

Rep. Ro Khanna, the first vice chair of the Progressive Caucus, said he trusts Pelosi’s judgment and values on the matter.  

“I trust that she’s going to make sure that there is no wall that becomes a symbol for nativism — and we’ll fight that,“ the California Democrat said. “And so if she comes to the caucus and feels like we’ve gotten a reasonable proposal … then I would take her recommendation very seriously.”

While Khanna said “there may be a few” members Pelosi wouldn’t be able to convince to back a deal, he expects her to have significant influence.

“My mom said Nancy Pelosi has now become the most powerful woman in the world,” he said. “So I think her stature has grown, and a lot of people will trust her judgment.”

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