‘Everyone hates this place’: Border bill tears apart Democratic caucus
Democrats broke into open warfare Thursday over Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s surrender to the Senate’s emergency border aid package, with the caucus’ long-simmering divide between progressives and centrists playing out in dramatic fashion on the House floor.
Some lawmakers even resorted to public name-calling, with progressive leader Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) accusing moderate Democrats of favoring child abuse — an exchange on Twitter that prompted two freshmen centrists to confront him directly on the floor, with other lawmakers looking on in shock.
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Pelosi has spent months deftly navigating a diverse caucus brimming with political novices, deeply split on ideological lines and itching to throw the president out of office. But this week’s fiasco exposed fissures in Pelosi’s rank-and-file, in her leadership and in her relationship with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).
“She is a very experienced legislator, but I think this is a very rough patch,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
“We can’t say that we have a lawless administration or a president who should be in prison, or whatever people want to say about him, but then cave,” she added. “You have to fight for what you believe.”
And the conclusion of the four-day whiplash battle within the caucus proved Pelosi, who often describes herself as a “master negotiator,” is not invincible. The battle further illustrates the hurdles Pelosi faces in the fall as she tries to keep her caucus united while negotiating with Republicans to avoid a fiscal cliff and debt default.
Just before the vote, Pocan, the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, inflamed tensions further when he called the Problem Solvers Caucus — a bipartisan group of moderates that pushed Pelosi to take up the Senate bill — the Child Abuse Caucus.
The stinging attack was a reference to the Senate bill’s lack of additional language to protect migrant children that House progressives had fought aggressively for.
“Since when did the Problem Solvers Caucus become the Child Abuse Caucus?” Pocan wrote on Twitter.
Reps. Max Rose (D-N.Y.), and Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), both members of the Problem Solvers Caucus, confronted Pocan on the House floor over his tweet. According to sources familiar with the conversation, Rose used expletives, and Pocan said he did not apologize.
“I said, how come you can’t stay 24 hours to do your job?” Pocan said of his retort to Rose on the floor. “He said, ‘My mother thinks I’m a child abuser.’ I said, ‘I’ll tell your mother you’re not a child abuser.’”
Rose, whom his party considers to be vulnerable in 2020, vented his frustration Thursday shortly after the exchange, calling Pocan’s tweet “crazy, crazy language.”
“Mark’s tweet just speaks to why everyone hates this place. He’s just trying to get retweets. That’s all he cares about,” Rose told POLITICO.
Their spat continued on Twitter, with Pocan responding: “Maybe the REAL problem is someone who thinks this is about retweets and not about bad contractors, awful conditions and kids.”
More than 90 Democrats voted against the Senate bill, including members of leadership like Reps. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico and David Cicilline of Rhode Island — a sign of the deep discontent simmering within the caucus. In a shocking move, Pelosi’s entire team of negotiators on the border aid bill, including House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey of New York and Reps. Lucille Roybal-Allard of California and Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut also voted no.
Progressives, including Pocan, said they felt stung by the stunning course-reversal by Pelosi, where she swiftly bowed to pressure from moderates who had threatened to tank the House version of the bill — which contained hard-fought wins for the liberal Democrats. And Pocan warned that it could fire up the 90-member Congressional Progressive Caucus to take more hard-line stances on key bills in the coming months.
“I just think it’s hard to ask our caucus to help deliver votes to pass things,” Pocan said. “It’s just going to be a lot harder for us to care to help deliver votes.”
Multiple other liberal Democrats were also publicly seething at their centrist colleagues for forcing Pelosi to abandon her initial plan to vote on an amended version of the Senate bill that contained additional protections for migrant children.
House centrists, meanwhile, took a victory lap for their earlier efforts to pressure Pelosi into taking up the Senate bill.
“You have to understand, you’re not going to get everything you want,” Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), co-chair of the Problem Solvers Caucus, said in an interview after the bill passed. “We just wanted to make sure that none of us went home without getting something done for children and families at the border.”
Hours earlier, Gottheimer and other Democratic moderates began privately lobbying their colleagues to threaten to oppose their own caucus’s version of the border bill, arguing that Pelosi should simply take up the Senate version. Those members, who belonged to both the Problem Solvers Caucus and the Blue Dog Coalition, ultimately totaled 18 — enough to tank the bill.
Pelosi went back to the negotiating table, speaking with Vice President Mike Pence for an hour before huddling with her leadership team. Pence agreed to some “administrative fixes” that addressed some Democratic concerns — and Pelosi announced her House would vote on the clean Senate bill as a result — but it wasn’t enough to calm furious liberals.
“I think the Problem Solvers Caucus is emerging to be this tea party within our own Democratic Party,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) told POLITICO. “I find their tactics to be extremely concerning. It’s horrifying. It’s horrifying.”
The New York Democrat said she blames the centrist group for the House getting stuck with the Senate’s funding package.
But other members of the Problem Solvers Caucus, who pride themselves on being bipartisan and largely staying out of the headlines, were privately livid.
Facing an uprising from both the right and left wings of the caucus, Pelosi struggled to contain members’ outrage on Thursday over being forced to concede to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who refused to entertain Democratic demands that he amend the Senate bill.
The end result also left House Democrats fuming at Schumer and Senate Democrats, who voted overwhelmingly for the Senate’s border aid package, weakening the House majority’s negotiating position, they said.
“It obviously significantly undermined our leverage and our ability to keep these important protections in the bill,” said Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), a member of House leadership who voted against the bill Thursday.
Pelosi expressed her own unhappiness with Schumer at a Democratic leadership meeting Thursday, complaining that he couldn’t corral his members to support the House bill, according to a source in the room.
Progressive lawmakers were much sharper — and public — in their criticism. Jayapal said Senate Democrats should have grown a “spine” and not voted with Senate Republicans on Wednesday.
Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), a progressive firebrand, declined to fault House leaders, placing the blame instead squarely on the shoulders of Senate Democrats, most of whom backed the Senate bill.
“Let’s focus on the fact that Senate Democrats joined the leadership behind McConnell in support of something that had no safeguards, no basic human rights for these children,” she said. “What are you doing? You’re just throwing money and saying, ‘Continue what you’re doing President Trump, you’re doing a fine job.’”
Senate Democratic sources privately blamed House Democrats, saying they pulled out of bipartisan border aid negotiations in May after the Congressional Hispanic Caucus objected. Some House Democrats also privately blamed Jayapal, who they say inflamed the CHC, urging them to pressure leadership to pull out of the negotiations in May. Others argued that some of the demands from both progressives and Hispanic members came too late in negotiations.
That resulted in the Senate moving forward on its own, with the Senate Appropriations Committee approving its bipartisan package 30-1 before it overwhelmingly passed on the floor.
“Senate Democrats were with the House Dems all the way, but their bill couldn’t pass the Senate,” said a senior Senate Democratic aide. “By refusing to participate in a four-corner negotiation for weeks, House Dems never allowed themselves the chance to have a say in a bill that could actually become law, so they only have themselves to blame for that.”
House Democratic leaders sought to tamp down the controversy but acknowledged they weren’t able to get the job done, refusing to blame their Senate colleagues.
“It’s done. It’s not time for blame,” Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said. “We would have hoped that we would have had the opportunity to get the vision that we think should have been supported by the Senate. We were disappointed we weren’t able to get that in there.”
John Bresnahan, Jake Sherman, Melanie Zanona and Laura Barrón-López contributed to this report.