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House Democrats’ confusing, high-risk DACA government shutdown gamble, explained

There’s “confusion and frustration” as Democratic leadership sends mixed messages about a possible shutdown.

House Votes On Motion To Go To Conference On Tax Bill Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Multiple House Democratic aides said there was “confusion and frustration” in the caucus on Thursday afternoon in the hours ahead of a critical spending vote. Some House Democrats are saying they’ll withhold votes on a bipartisan budget deal unless they are promised an immigration vote in the House — but it’s not yet clear how serious that threat is.

Congress needs to pass a spending bill or the government will shut down at midnight, and tensions are mounting over a second possible government shutdown in three weeks — again over the the sunsetting Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

Both House Democrats and conservative Republicans are threatening to withhold support for a vote that’s hours away.

For conservative Republicans, the budget deal, which Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer announced yesterday, is too massive a spending increase. The proposal would increase investments in domestic programs and the military to the tune of $300 billion over the next two years, a major victory for Democrats concerned a Republican-led government would slash federal programs.

But some Democrats are engaging in a high-risk, last-ditch strategy to ensure the House actually votes on immigration. With enough conservatives voting against the budget proposal, House Republicans need Democratic support to keep the government open. Despite supporting the budget deal on its merits, many House Democrats say they need a promise on a DACA vote as hundreds of thousands young immigrants fear losing protections from deportation and work permits by March 5.

Leaving a House Democratic caucus meeting on Thursday evening, rank-and-file members said that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) told caucus members to “vote their conscience.” Pelosi made it clear that she would be voting against the deal, but Congress members said leadership was not actively whipping their votes, instead, urging them to vote no. However, some said Pelosi’s sway over the caucus couldn’t be underestimated.

“Anyone that underestimates the ability of Nancy Pelosi to influence the Democratic caucus shouldn’t be in the business that you are in,” Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) told reporters on Thursday evening, as the shutdown rapidly began to look more plausible.

Democratic leaders seem to believe Republicans have lost enough votes to need to bargain with Democrats on DACA. But after months of stalled bipartisan immigration negotiations, and a lack of urgency from Republican leadership, it’s clear Democrats are trying to hold House Speaker Paul Ryan’s feet to the fire. They want him promise an immigration vote in the House, a similar pledge McConnell made to re-open the government last time — and they think they are cutting it close enough to make Ryan nervous.

“We are saying that [Ryan] has to do something more than say ‘we’re going to vote,’ but he doesn’t say when, he doesn’t say how,” said Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chair Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-NM).

House Democrats want what Senate Democrats got in the last shutdown. It comes with some huge risks.

On Thursday, rank-and-file House Democrats were receiving mixed messages on whether or not to vote against the Senate spending deal.

Minority House Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) sent Democratic members a notice to vote against a short-term spending and budget bill Thursday. The message was clear: “We are whipping, because there is no path in the House on DACA,” a Democratic leadership aide told Vox.

Just hours earlier, Pelosi had told reporters that while she personally would be voting no against the bill, leadership wouldn’t be whipping Democratic votes on the measure. The disconnect between Pelosi and Hoyer’s offices has some Democratic aides wondering if their leadership is unified on a strategy for the spending bill.

Only three weeks ago, Senate Democrats shut down the government over stalled immigration negotiations. Democrats voted to reopen the government after getting assurances from McConnell for vote on a DACA bill. Now, House Democratic leadership are hoping to extract the same sort of promise out of Ryan.

“The sole impediment of getting anything done on immigration has been the Republican leadership in the House,” said Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-CA), vice chair of the House Democratic Caucus. “I cannot reiterate enough that there is support for a DACA/DREAMer fix if the speaker would merely step up and be the speaker of the House of Representatives, not just the speaker of his caucus.”

House Democrats want a deal that protects young, unauthorized immigrants known as DREAMers, and they know the political headwinds to reaching such an agreement in the House are much stronger than for their Democratic colleagues in the Senate. Ryan and Republican leadership have promised to whip votes for a conservative and partisan immigration bill put forward by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), and negotiations on bipartisan proposals have largely stalled.

Typically, House Republicans have a large enough majority to bypass Democrats’ interests altogether. But the massive budget deal has complicated the vote count for Republican leadership this time: The majority party could lose somewhere between 40 and 60 votes on this spending agreement, meaning Republicans will need the support of Democrats.

It’s given Democrats an opportunity to make demands, and the decision to threaten a government shutdown was a clear escalation.

There’s a lot on the line, including McConnell’s promised Senate immigration debate, which he said would only happen if Democrats voted to keep the government open.

House Democratic leaders are giving a voice to immigration activists

The first signs of trouble for the spending bill came Wednesday morning, when Pelosi headed to the House floor and started speaking and didn’t stop for the next eight hours.

Standing in 4-inch heels and only taking intermittent sips of water, the 77-year-old Democratic leader set a record for the longest continuous speech in the chamber, according to the House historian. Pelosi read off the names and stories of dozens of DREAMers — the young, unauthorized immigrants who will lose their legal status come March 5 — once the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program sunsets by President Trump’s executive order.

It was an act of protest against a massive spending agreement that was struck in the Senate hours earlier, with no deal to protect DREAMers attached. As Pelosi told reporters on Thursday, she thought the spending deal contained plenty of good things, but could not vote for it.

“I’m pleased with the product, I’m not pleased with the process,” she told reporters. “I have unease with it and hope that the speaker will man up and decide that we in the House can have what Mitch McConnell guaranteed in the Senate — a vote on the floor.”

And at first, it seemed Pelosi wouldn’t actively whip her caucus to vote against the bill. The leader told reporters as much on Thursday morning, saying she wouldn’t whip “no” votes.

“No, I’m just telling people why I’m voting the way I’m voting,” she said. But a few hours later, a whip notice came down from Hoyer, the second-ranking House Democrat. Rank-and-file Democrats were confused by the mixed messaging, as were immigrant rights groups.

Gutierrez, who tends to have his pulse on both leadership and activist groups, indicated that Democrats may not tank the deal after all, calling the whip against the vote “informational.”

Immigrant rights groups and progressive activists said that while they appreciated Pelosi’s eight-hour speech, they weren’t going to give her credit unless she gave the order for Democratic votes to be whipped. One official from a progressive group who asked not to be identified said Pelosi’s office told immigrant rights groups the leader wouldn’t be whipping the votes.

“We only care if she’s whipping her caucus and she’s not doing that,” the official said.

Paul Ryan has given Democrats a lot of reason for doubt over immigration

For months, congressional Republicans have asked Democrats to trust them on immigration. Vote to keep the government open and an immigration deal will come soon, they say.

“These are talks that are occurring in earnest — we want to fix DACA,” Ryan said before the last government shutdown in January.

But House Democrats have reason to be skeptical of Republican leadership on immigration. For all this insistence that negotiations are underway in earnest, Hoyer told reporters this week that he hadn’t seen much progress on the immigration debate at all.

Since Trump announced in September that his administration would sunset DACA, fully ending the program on March 5, several proposals giving legal protections to the 690,000 undocumented immigrants in the program have cropped up — none of which have been endorsed or supported by GOP leadership.

Republican leaders, who were previously preoccupied with an Obamacare repeal effort and then a tax reform bill, instead spent months asking the White House for more clarity on Trump’s vision for a DACA deal. Despite knowing an immigration bill will need to have bipartisan support to become law, House Speaker Paul Ryan’s only commitments on immigration have been to conservative immigration hardliners.

During the House’s last government spending fight three weeks ago, Ryan promised the House Freedom Caucus, a group of 40 ultraconservative lawmakers, that Republican leadership would whip votes for a conservative, partisan immigration bill. He also made assurances that he wouldn’t bring up any immigration bill that didn’t have the support of the majority of the House Republicans — a promise that will prove increasingly difficult on such a contentious and dividing policy issue.

But it’s not only Ryan that’s given Democrats pause. Immigration policy has a fraught history in the House: former Republican Speaker John Boehner refused to bring up the Senate’s bipartisan “Gang of Eight” immigration bill for a vote in 2013.

It’s a fresh memory for Democrats, who now want assurances that the 2018 immigration fight won’t fall in the same limbo as in years past.