House Dems furious with Senate leaders

House Democrats went into the post-shutdown recess this week voicing bitter feelings about their party's Senate leadership, sowing new tensions between the chambers at a crucial juncture in the budget and immigration debates.

Members of the liberal-heavy House Democratic Caucus are furious that Senate leaders, after forcing a government shutdown, agreed to reopen it without a firm commitment from the GOP to enact legislation protecting recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

The friction threatens to weaken the Democrats' hand heading into the next shutdown deadline, Feb. 8; undermine their bid to win protections for DACA recipients; and complicate their efforts to rally behind a unified message ahead of November's midterm elections, when both chambers are in play.

"If there were ever a case for the undemocratic nature of the Senate, this confirms it. They are out of touch with where the grass roots of this party is," said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), a liberal freshman.

"I don't see what we got out of this."

The debate has reopened fractures prominent in the 2016 election cycle, when there was fierce debate over whether the party should adopt a more centrist message in a bid to win heartland voters or shift hard to the left to energize their liberal base - a debate thrust into the spotlight by the surprising ascension of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in the Democratic presidential primary.

Pressed by immigrant-rights advocates in and out of Congress, Democratic leaders have insisted that any government spending bill must include protections for DACA recipients, a group of nearly 800,000 immigrants brought to the country illegally as children often referred to as "Dreamers."

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) fought to the end of last week's shutdown deadline to secure such a commitment, among a list of other budget priorities the Democrats are demanding. At the eleventh hour, Schumer went so far as to offer President Trump a down payment on new border wall construction - the signature message of Trump's campaign that has, until now, been a non-starter for Democratic leaders.

After Friday's shutdown, the sides hit a seemingly intractable impasse: Republicans refused to negotiate on immigration before Democrats helped reopen the government, and Democrats refused to reopen the government before a deal was struck on DACA. Breaking the stalemate required one party to capitulate. Schumer, pressed by centrists worried that Democrats would be blamed for the shutdown, did so on Monday -and liberals have been attacking ever since.

"I thought they were going to stand tall and firm," said a dejected Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.), among Capitol Hill's most vocal immigration reformers. "They blink, they just do."

Rep. Filemon Vela, a Texas Democrat representing a border district, went after those Democrats who conceded new border wall construction - a list that includes Schumer, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Gutiérrez - for thinking "so little of border residents" that they'd "disregard of the impact on border communities."

"Beyond the stupidity of offering unmatched concessions and negotiating against themselves, my colleagues have begun to refer to the border wall in the same way Trump's base speak about Dreamers and undocumented people," Vela said.

Khanna, noting the thousands who marched across the country to protest Trump over the weekend, warned that Democratic leaders ignore those voices at their own political peril.

"It's as if the marches yesterday didn't happen. I mean, thousands and thousands of people marching for a vision of progressive politics, and within 24 hours they're sold out," he said Monday.

To mend fences, Khanna said, "would require a mea culpa" and a bolder promise to secure "a realistic plan about [how] we're going to get a vote for the Dreamers."

It won't be easy.

While Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has promised to take up a DACA bill after Feb. 8 if no deal is reached beforehand, there's been no similar commitment from Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) in the House. And lower-chamber conservatives, encouraged by what they consider a clear victory in the shutdown fight, are pressing harder than ever for consideration of a Republican DACA bill that includes a long list of tough enforcement measures anathema to both Democrats and moderate lawmakers in the GOP conference.

Without that commitment from GOP leaders in both chambers, House Democrats are vowing to hold their ground in opposition to any new government spending bill, setting the stage for another shutdown standoff.

"Why would I go out here and make a political commitment and then find out that there's nothing over here that's going to maintain the deal?" asked Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), former head of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Practically speaking, the position of House Democrats has been inconsequential in the last three short-term spending votes because GOP leaders didn't need their votes. But that could change going forward.

Disagreements over what they're really fighting for is also an issue for Democrats.

Party leaders have insisted that the fate of DACA is only one of many demands the Republicans must concede before they'll support a government funding bill - a list that includes new funding for community health centers, disaster relief, the protection of troubled pensions and efforts to tackle the opioid crisis.

"It's about the whole budget," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told The Hill Monday. "And I keep trying to say to all of you: They just can't get the votes on their side to pass a budget, and that's why they're using the Dreamers as an excuse."

Pelosi, who opposed the three-week spending bill backed by Schumer, also defended the Senate Democrats now taking heat from the party's liberal base.

"They did what they had to do," she said. "They advanced the cause."

But others in her caucus view the debate differently, saying the impasse hinges on the issue of immigration - not least because it was the central message of Trump's populist campaign.

"Everybody really knows that this debate is about one thing, and one thing only," said Gutiérrez.