Democratic lawmakers are trying to keep up the pressure on the Trump administration over its struggles to reunite families separated at the southern border under the "zero tolerance" immigration policy.
Members of the House and Senate are using every hearing and markup of health-related legislation to push for amendments aimed at holding the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) accountable.
Democrats have sent dozens of public letters demanding specifics on how many children have been separated from their families and details about agency efforts to reunite them with their parents. They have also called for oversight hearings and the firing of a top HHS official.
Despite the efforts, lawmakers are now finding themselves in a tricky spot of trying to balance anger against the family separations with a looming battle over abortion and health-care coverage with President TrumpDonald TrumpYoungkin ad features mother who pushed to have 'Beloved' banned from son's curriculum White House rejects latest Trump claim of executive privilege Democrats say GOP lawmakers implicated in Jan. 6 should be expelled MORE's nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, which threatens to suck up all the oxygen in the room.
Kavanaugh was nominated July 9, just as lawmakers returned to Washington from the July Fourth holiday recess. In the short time since, much of the energy from Democratic leadership has been centered on the Supreme Court fight in the Senate.
Democratic leaders used their first wave of press conferences this week to focus on the potential impact Kavanaugh could have on health care, raising concerns that he could help overturn ObamaCare’s protections for people with pre-existing conditions.
“We Democrats believe the No. 1 issue in America is health care, and the ability for people to get good health care at prices they can afford,” Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerSenators weigh future of methane fee in spending bill Biden hopes for deal on economic agenda before Europe trip The Senate is setting a dangerous precedent with Iron Dome funding MORE (D-N.Y.) said Tuesday. “The nomination of Mr. Kavanaugh would put a dagger through the heart of that cherished belief that most Americans have.”
There’s also wide acknowledgement that Kavanaugh could shift the Supreme Court to the right on abortion, and Democrats are divided on whether to ramp up their abortion rhetoric, or to focus on pre-existing conditions and high insurance premiums.
Democrats are voicing confidence that their push to keep pressure on the family reunification efforts won't be overshadowed by the Supreme Court fight while pointing to ongoing questions surrounding the administration's progress.
Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenOn The Money — Democrats craft billionaire tax with deal in reach Senators weigh future of methane fee in spending bill Senate negotiators homing in on proposal to tax billionaires MORE (D-Ore.), the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, told The Hill he feels duped by testimony HHS Secretary Alex Azar gave at a committee hearing in late June about the number and location of children in the agency’s custody.
“We have no intention of letting this go,” Wyden said. “The most charitable thing you can say is that was just baloney. It was so misleading.”
Wyden, along with Sens. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel Feinstein Ban on new offshore drilling must stay in the Build Back Better Act Senate GOP signals they'll help bail out Biden's Fed chair Jane Fonda to push for end to offshore oil drilling in California MORE (D-Calif.), Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayUnder pressure, Democrats cut back spending Overnight Health Care — Presented by Carequest — Colin Powell's death highlights risks for immunocompromised Senate Democrats ditch Hyde amendment for first time in decades MORE (D-Wash.) and Dick DurbinDick DurbinDemocrats face critical 72 hours Bipartisan lawmakers target judges' stock trading with new bill Manchin: Negotiators to miss Friday target for deal on reconciliation bill MORE (D-Ill.), sent a letter to Azar earlier this week calling out what they said were “glaring" inaccuracies about the number of children separated from their parents at the southern border.
House appropriators this week also adopted bipartisan amendments to the HHS funding bill aimed at forcing the agency to give Congress regular status updates on reunification efforts.
“This manufactured crisis is, in my view, government-sanctioned child abuse,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauroRosa DeLauroWhich proposals will survive in the Democrats' spending plan? Proposals to reform supports for parents face chopping block On The Money — Democrats eye tough choices as deadline looms MORE (D-Conn.), who for months has been calling for more oversight of HHS. “We are abdicating our responsibility, our moral responsibility, on this issue.”
Public outrage over the administration’s policy of forced separation began building in late May. The issue was thrust into the spotlight after the Trump administration implemented its “zero tolerance” policy, leading to thousands of family separations.
Under the policy, officials seek to immediately prosecute everyone who is caught trying to cross into the U.S. illegally through the nation's southern border, including those seeking asylum.
In late June, facing bipartisan backlash, Trump signed an executive order aimed at ending forced family separations.
The administration has recently begun reuniting some of the children in HHS custody with their parents, and the issue has slowly faded from the forefront of public discussion.
Government officials said Thursday that all eligible children under the age of 5 who were separated from their parents under the policy have been reunited.
The administration faces a July 26 deadline to reunite children ages 5 to 17, and HHS officials have yet to say just how many such children they have in custody.
Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyDemocrats ready to put a wrap on dragged-out talks Democrats look for plan B on filibuster The Memo: Cuts to big bill vex Democrats MORE (D-Conn.) was one of a handful of lawmakers who have been blocked by HHS from visiting detained children in state-run facilities.
He said he thinks HHS owes lawmakers more information, but knows Democrats can only do so much to try to draw attention to it.
“My feeling is that HHS has been trying to operate under a cover of darkness from the beginning," Murphy told The Hill. “Congress could compel the administration to provide more information ... but clearly that’s not going to happen.”