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On DREAM Act, 9 Democrats defect on rule vote, even as caucus shows more unity

Relatively rare for members of the majority to buck leadership in voting against a rule

Rep. Joe Cunningham, D-S.C., was one of nine Democrats voting against the rule for the DREAM Act on Tuesday, a high-water mark for the year. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Joe Cunningham, D-S.C., was one of nine Democrats voting against the rule for the DREAM Act on Tuesday, a high-water mark for the year. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

House votes on rules to begin debate on legislation are typically party-line tests. But when nine Democrats voted Tuesday against the rule for an immigration bill, it was a high-water mark for Democratic defections this year.

Still, Democrats are more unified on such votes than the House majority party has been in all but two years of the last decade. 

The rule adopted Tuesday allowed the House to begin debating a measure to provide permanent legal protections for young undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers who were brought to the U.S. as children, as well as for recipients of the Temporary Protected Status and Deferred Enforced Departure programs. The House passed the measure Tuesday evening, 237-187.

In adopting the rule, the Democratic majority waived their pay-as-you-go, or PAYGO, rule that requires legislation that would increase the deficit to be offset by spending cuts or revenue increases. The Dream and Promise Act would add more than $30 billion to the deficit, according to estimates from the Congressional Budget Office. 

The nine Democrats who voted against the rule are from the moderate wing of the caucus: Reps. Anthony Brindisi of New York, Joe Cunningham of South Carolina, Sharice Davids of Kansas, Jared Golden of Maine, Kendra Horn of Oklahoma, Tom Malinowski of New Jersey, Ben McAdams of Utah, Scott Peters of California and Lauren Underwood of Illinois. 

All but Peters are freshmen.

Peters’ spokeswoman said he strongly supports the Dream and Promise Act but voted against the rule because he thinks lawmakers need to have a conversation about how to cover some of the costs.

Cunningham supports Dreamers but voted against the rule on the bill because it waived PAYGO, his office said, noting that the congressman prioritizes fiscal responsibility and being a good steward of taxpayer dollars. 

A Golden spokesman said he voted against the rule because he felt that the process should have been more open to allow for the consideration of amendments and that the measure should have been paid for.

Davids said in a statement that she was proud to vote to provide a path to citizenship for Dreamers, TPS holders and DED holders, but she was disappointed House leadership decided not to include provisions to pay for the bill.

“I voted against waiving the PAYGO rule because I believe Congress must be fiscally responsible and find ways to pay for legislation it wants to pass, especially when it’s estimated to increase the budget deficit by more than $34 billion,” she said.

Offices of the other Democrats who voted against the rule did not respond to a request for comment by press time. All nine voted for the bill on final passage. 

“You’ll have to ask them why they voted against the rule but no one reached out to me about a problem,” House Rules Chairman Jim McGovern said in a statement to CQ Roll Call. “I’m proud that we’re advancing this bill to help DACA recipients, DED beneficiaries, and TPS holders. Our unity is on display in the 232 Democratic cosponsors of this bill, including most of the Democratic members that voted against the rule today.” 

Rare move

Typically, rule defectors are protesting some decision, whether process or political, that their leadership made in bringing the bill to the floor.

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Out of 22 rule votes taken so far this Congress, only five had members of the majority who joined Republicans in opposition. 

The second-largest was when seven Democrats on April 9 voted against a structured rule — one allowing limited amendments — for two measures, the Save the Internet Act and the Investing for the People Act. Those seven included Brindisi, Cunningham, Horn and McAdams, as well as Reps. Dean Phillips of Minnesota, Abigail Spanberger of Virginia and Xochitl Torres Small of New Mexico.

Two Democrats, McAdams and Rhode Island Rep. Jim Langevin, on May 15 voted against a combined rule for three measures, including a closed rule for the Equality Act and a structured rule for a package of health care bills called the Strengthening Health Care and Lowering Prescription Drug Costs Act.

Golden and Minnesota Rep. Collin C. Peterson voted against a combined rule in February providing for consideration of two gun control measures. And in January, Iowa Rep. Cindy Axne voted against a closed rule on two appropriations measures Democrats brought to the floor in a futile attempt to reopen the government.

Of the five rule votes that have drawn opposition from members of the majority this Congress, the average defection rate has been four Democrats. 

That’s lower than the average defection rates of 12 and 17 that Democrats faced in 2009 and 2010, respectively, when they were last in the majority. Over those two years, the House voted on 129 rules, all but two of which drew opposition from at least one member of the Democratic majority.

Republicans also had members of their own party defect on rule votes when they held the majority from 2011 through 2018, but less frequently. Of the 463 rule votes taken during those eight years, only 161, or roughly a third, drew opposition from at least one member of the majority.

The defection rates of those votes were typically low; on average, just two Republicans defected in 2011, 2013, 2014 and 2016, three in 2012 and 2017, and five in 2018.

The outlier year was 2015 when 10 Republicans on average defected. That rate was inflated somewhat because of an unprecedented vote in which 152 Republicans voted against the rule on a measure to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank, which was brought to the floor under a bipartisan discharge petition.

That was also the year that 34 Republicans bucked their leadership in voting against a rule to debate a Trade Promotion Authority bill to give President Barack Obama latitude to negotiate a 12-nation Pacific Rim trade deal. Speaker John A. Boehner punished some of the conservatives who voted against that rule by removing them from the GOP whip team or prime committee posts.