Pelosi, Democratic leaders seek to quell liberal revolt over border bill

Aaron Schwartz

House Democratic leaders scrambled Monday night to rally support for their border funding bill amid a liberal outcry over the Trump administration’s treatment of migrant children — and questions over whether the Democrats’ proposal would do enough to protect them. 

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other top leaders huddled in Pelosi’s Capitol office late into the night with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC), the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) and the senior appropriators who have championed the border bill. 

{mosads}Lawmakers leaving the meeting said they expected changes to the $4.5 billion package to ensure stricter standards for the facilities housing migrant children, which have been overcrowded with reportedly unsanitary conditions. Democratic leaders are still aiming for a floor vote on Tuesday.

In short, the liberals simply don’t trust the administration to treat the migrants humanely, even if Congress approves ample funding for their care. They want the bill to include — or be accompanied by — a new set of behavioral standards governing U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). 

Multiple lawmakers pointed to a bill authored by Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.) that would establish humanitarian and health standards for migrants in the custody of CBP — things like having guaranteed access to enough water, toilets, bathing facilities and toiletries. 

“There’s a difference between funding items that they say they need versus changing behaviors by creating some humanitarian standards within CBP,” Ruiz said leaving Pelosi’s office. “We still need to pass the humanitarian standards bill that I’ve introduced in order to change behaviors. Otherwise you’re going to fund a system that is treating women and children subhuman and inhumane, and that’s not going to change simply because you have more supplies.”

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), in impassioned remarks, summarized the liberal opposition to the House legislation — unveiled just a day earlier by House Democratic leaders — emphasizing she wants to ensure migrant children aren’t detained in such conditions to begin with. 

“I’m not interested in … making sure that caged children are getting warmer burritos. I’m trying to make sure that they’re not getting caged in the first place,” Ocasio-Cortez said. 

After nearly three hours, Ocasio-Cortez emerged from Pelosi’s office describing the discussions as “just a really delicate situation.”

“This administration has manufactured a crisis in this specific vote and in this specific moment. It’s a rock and a hard place,” Ocasio-Cortez said.

Ocasio-Cortez entered the meeting saying that she opposed the border aid package that had been unveiled by the House Appropriations Committee on Friday. But after leaving the meeting with Democratic leaders, she said it’s possible she could vote for it depending on the changes.

Pelosi herself had endorsed the proposal on Sunday, saying that it “protects families” and “does not fund the administration’s failed mass detention policy.”

Recent stories describing horrific treatment of migrant children at federally run detention centers along the border have sparked outrage among liberal Democrats.  

“We cannot continue to throw money at a dysfunctional system,” said Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.). “With this crisis they were not equipped. And we cannot try to help them get out of this situation without having a full comprehensive plan to deal with the humanitarian crisis we’re seeing.”

Omar said she won’t be satisfied with minor tweaks, but wants a drastic reconfiguration to ensure the children’s protections are ensured. 

“We are not just asking for simple changes to be made into this bill, but to go back to the drawing board and really address this from a humanitarian [angle],” she said. 

Other Democrats have cautioned that the House bill, while not perfect, is the best chance they have to address the humanitarian crisis in a timely fashion. 

“We all have ideas about how to make improvements,” said Democratic Rep. Veronica Escobar, a freshman who represents a Texas border district. “The question is timing. We’re running out of time.”

Escobar said there were conference calls over the weekend with members of both the CHC and CPC. Monday’s meeting in Pelosi’s office was set up to allow those members to hear directly from appropriators.

“We have the highest expectations that we will treat people in a humanitarian and dignified way,” she said. 

Some Democrats were optimistic that a deal would be reached this week. 

“It’s going to be fine,” said Rep. Henry Cuellar (Texas), another border Democrat. 

House Democrats plan to move their bill while the Senate considers its own competing proposal this week to respond to the Trump administration’s $4.5 billion request. 

Lawmakers are trying to approve the border funding as soon as possible before the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is operated by the Department of Health and Human Services, doesn’t run out of funding in the coming weeks. 
But the two parties aren’t in agreement in the House, making it hard to reach a bipartisan, bicameral deal in the next few days.
“Instead of Pelosi putting a group together, Republicans and Democrats, to solve the problem, look at what she’s doing. She’s got maybe her most hardcore left groups trying to figure out how to jam the president,” House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) said.

The White House issued a veto threat on Monday against the House version, calling it a “partisan bill that underfunds necessary accounts and seeks to take advantage of the current crisis by inserting policy provisions that would make our country less safe.”

The Senate bill, meanwhile, is bipartisan, although the White House expressed displeasure that neither measure includes funding for more Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention beds.

Both bills would provide hundreds of millions of dollars for processing facilities as well as supplies for migrants. But the House measure includes more restrictions on how funds can be used, including conditions for the treatment of migrant children. 

And while the Senate bill would require members of Congress to give advance notification of two business days to visit facilities housing unaccompanied children, the House version wouldn’t make lawmakers give notice ahead of time.

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Ilhan Omar Nancy Pelosi Raul Ruiz Steve Scalise Veronica Escobar
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