Democrats say they have little leverage left to pressure Republicans to call up a bill addressing the legal status of Dreamers now that Congress has passed a budget deal that boosted defense and domestic spending caps, and lifted the debt ceiling for a year.
The budget agreement set spending levels for the next two years, and it passed as part of a short-term spending bill that included billions in disaster relief with 73 Democrats joining most Republicans in support of the measure. The Democrats who opposed the deal because it didn’t include a fix for the 800,000 recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program now have little hope that legislation will be passed by the March 5 deadline imposed by Trump, if at all.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., told reporters Friday morning that Democrats now have zero leverage on immigration. He noted that the three leverage points Democrats laid out months ago are all gone. Budget caps, the debt ceiling, and disaster aid, Gutierrez said, were all included in the bill that passed early Friday.
Gutierrez scoffed when asked if the omnibus spending bill, which will be voted on next month and is needed to implement the budget agreement, could be a pressure point.
“Really?” Gutierrez quipped. “Is it realistic? Can you continue to threaten with something?”
Gutierrez said that would mean members who voted “yes” on the deal authorizing the higher spending caps, debt ceiling increase, and disaster relief would have to turn around and vote against the actual money a month later. Once Congress passes sweeping deals on spending caps, outlining critical funds for health centers and states and territories hit by devastating natural disasters, it’s practically a done deal that the final appropriations bills detailing where the money will go will pass with little fanfare.
Democrats could in theory hold out next month, but those who voted yes Friday morning were blue dogs dealing with towns hit by the opioid epidemic, or from districts in dire need of disaster aid, and they have little reason to change their vote. Immigration advocates and progressives have targeted Democrats in swing districts, and any who have voted to keep the government funded but it’s unlikely those members will cave.
That reality wasn’t lost on Rep. Ruben Gallego D-Ariz., who shouted to his colleagues on the House floor, “No” with a raised thumbs down in the final moments of the vote.
“We have to be realistic, if this passes and there’s no guarantee of a Dream Act vote, then we’re going to have to deal with the reality that we have to find whatever means possible to put pressure on Speaker Ryan and the Republican Party to bring a fair vote on the Dream Act to the floor,” Gallego told reporters ahead of the vote.
Ryan didn’t give the commitment Gallego was looking for when the speaker repeated his promise that the House “will solve this DACA problem.”
Democrats want Ryan to commit to a “Queen of the Hill” approach, which means the majority would allow multiple immigration proposals on the floor for consideration and let the House work its will. The legislation that gets the most votes would be the one adopted. Ryan made no such promise despite calls from Democratic leaders in the lead up to budget vote.
“This was the last leverage point,” Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., said of the budget deal as he left the chamber, adding that Ryan’s assurance on the floor to work on immigration was “an incomplete pledge.”
Krishnamoorthi said the ability to pass a DACA fix, which would be packaged with a substantial increase in border security funding, depends on the Democratic base.
“March 5 is coming up really fast,” he said. “I’m not hearing enough in the way of the president saying we’re going to delay this deadline. He’s leaving that very open, which to me means he want to leave them exposed and in jeopardy.”
When asked what leverage remained, Democratic Caucus Chairman Joe Crowley, exhausted after a day that dragged into the early morning hours on Friday, said the fate of Dreamers now rests on public opinion.
“Well, I think we have the moral ‘suasion of the American people,” said Crowley, D-N.Y. “I think it’s moral ‘suasion at this point. Speaker said that we’ll move on something, I don’t know what that is.”
But Crowley didn’t believe Ryan. “I have no reason to base any belief that it will happen, no,” he said.
Rep. Raul Grijalva’s expressed disappointment that 73 Democrats voted in favor of the budget, but held onto more hope than his colleagues that a deal providing a pathway to citizenship for DACA recipients could be reached.
“We still have the most important leverage points, and that’s the humanity of this issue,” Grijalva said. “Instead of worrying about what legislative angle we have let’s now concentrate on making this a campaign that is both political and zeroed in on Ryan.”
Polling shows that an overwhelming majority of Americans support permanent legal protections for young undocumented immigrants. Nearly nine in 10, or 87 percent, believe DACA recipients should be allowed to stay in the U.S., according to a recent CBS survey.
That sentiment is why Rep. John Yarmuth D-Ky., who voted in favor of the deal, sees an opening for Democrats to hammer Republicans on the issue if they don’t follow through.
“The leverage is that if we don’t do anything then there are going to be people deported and they’re going to be on television every night,” Yarmuth said, “and there’s a midterm election coming.”