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The brewing intra-left fight about Democrats’ big congressional deal, explained

A few Democrats are quietly griping about the big budget deal. Most will accept it.

Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez Holds Community Town Hall In Chicago
Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) and activist groups think Democrats should tie protecting the DREAMers to must-pass emergency measures.
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

If you read the headlines, you probably learned that congressional Democrats were the big winners of a surprise deal with President Donald Trump at the White House on Wednesday.

Senate and House Minority Leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi seemingly got what they wanted from Trump: emergency funding for Hurricane Harvey, an agreement to fund the government at existing levels, and a clean raise of the debt ceiling. As Vox’s Andrew Prokop noted, the deal only extends the debt limit and funds the government for three months, giving Democrats what they see as critical leverage in upcoming negotiations on the calendar.

But some progressives aren’t so sure Democrats came away with a win.

“[Schumer and Pelosi] did not use the leverage we as Democrats have. Republicans need us each and every instance — to pass the debt ceiling and fund the government, and pass Harvey relief. And what do we do? We collaborated while they devastate our communities,” Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL), the party’s most strident voice on immigration, told Vox.

Gutierrez is one of a handful on left arguing Democrats actually gave up more than they got on Wednesday. Gutierrez says funding the government should be contingent on protecting the 800,000 young immigrants made vulnerable by Trump’s decision to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival Program. Several House Democrats have privately voiced the same concern to other members, according to three House Democratic aides.

Interviews with more than a dozen House Democrats suggested most in the caucus are prepared to support the Pelosi/Schumer/Trump deal. But activists aren’t happy leaders gave up on tying a DREAM Act vote to the bargain, and a wave of resistance from the activist left — which spent much of Wednesday simply trying to figure out what was in the agreement — could change that.

This dispute might look like routine left-wing infighting, but the stakes are enormous. The deal reached by Trump and congressional leaders on Wednesday already faces a possible insurrection from the right. With the fate of the world economy hanging in the balance, the ascendant left could also pose a threat to the only bipartisan solution on the table — or, depending on your perspective, offer the only hope for the more than 800,000 young immigrants who are in legal limbo and potentially face deportation as the government sunsets DACA.

Activists, some left-wing Democrats wanted DACA tied to must-pass legislation

Acitvists Hold Rally Against President Trump's Decision To End DACA Photo by Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images

Leaving a 9 pm meeting in the Capitol Wednesday night, Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA) let some of her fears about Democrats' big budget deal slip.

The day before, Chu had delivered an emotional speech in the House basement about the need for Congress to protect recipients of the DREAM Act. But then Democratic leaders negotiated a deal that, Chu fretted, risks extending the DACA debate until the debt ceiling fight comes up again in December.

“I want to see what we can do to get DACA passed in September. I don’t know what other leverage there is,” Chu, the first Chinese-American elected to Congress, told me.

Asked if Schumer and Pelosi had given up leverage by not pushing for a DACA fix, Chu said: “I’m worried about that, yes ... I want to hear what [leadership] has to say, but I don’t think it’s all been talked through. I always thought leadership’s intent was to get something done in September.”

Democrats pushing for a DREAM Act vote say the agreement allows them to extract more concessions than they would have otherwise. Paul Ryan wanted the debt ceiling off the table altogether, and extending it by only three months gives the Democrats leverage again. But some activists argue that doesn’t make any sense. If the point is to give Democrats leverage over funding fights, why not use it now? And if Democrats won’t use it now, why should pro-DACA activists believe they will in December?

Gutierrez, immigration activists, and liberal organizers will thus be trying to push her and other House Democrats to demand the DREAM Act be included in Congress’s emergency measures. Gutierrez spent Wednesday night in the Capitol lobbying members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus to take his position and criticize Pelosi, a source with knowledge of those conversations said.

The left tries to push Democrats to insist on tying DREAMers to emergency bills

Meanwhile, activists outside Washington, DC, are preparing to flex their muscles. Three of the most influential groups — United We Dream, the National Immigration Law Center, and Indivisible — gave Vox a statement, scheduled for release on Thursday, blasting Schumer and Pelosi.

“The world’s attention is focused on DACA and public sympathy for the many young immigrants ... And yet Democratic leaders Schumer and Pelosi instead chose to make a deal with Trump, with a vague promise of action on the DREAM Act down the road,” the statement said. “At a time of great urgency, the message Schumer and Pelosi sent to immigrant youth was, ‘wait.’”

Senate Lawmakers Speak To The Press After Their Weekly Party Luncheons Photo by Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

Few Democrats have echoed this critique — so far. But UWD’s statement didn’t come out until after Wednesday. Other advocacy groups on the institution left tend to take their cues on immigration from DREAMer activists, of which UWD is the biggest.

And though only one House Democrat is publicly vowing to oppose the deal right now, others are sympathetic to his cause. “Pelosi and Schumer are putting members in a difficult position and boxing them into voting for a package without having any assurances that Republicans will bring the DREAM Act to the floor,” said the aide for a House Democrat considered a moderate, who belongs to neither the CHC or the CPC. “They should have waited until there was a path forward on DACA.”

Already, some Democratic 2018 left-wing primary challengers sense an opening. Alexandria Ocasio, who is launching a long-shot bid to unseat Democratic Caucus Chair Joe Crowley (D-NY), told Vox the deal gave up on DREAMers too easily.

“They just rolled over,” Ocasio said. “Democrats had an incredible opportunity to fight for Latino communities, but they didn’t take it.”

Most congressional Democrats seem to think they’ve won a victory

While left-wing activists fear a self-inflicted defeat, Democratic leadership — and most House Democrats I interviewed — are proclaiming a clear victory. Several Senate Democrats could barely contain their elation about the deal, according to Talking Points Memo’s Alice Ollstein.

“I'm not really hearing the dissent. It doesn't seem like there's serious rancor within the caucus about this,” said one Democratic House aide.

The clearest argument for the deal is that all three bills are ones Democrats wanted. As Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-MA) put it, “This is a step forward for the country. We have a deal that means the debt ceiling will be cleared, the government will be funded, and the victims of Hurricane Harvey will get the help they need — all three are huge priorities right now.”

Moreover, over the course of the Obama administration, Democrats argued Republicans were recklessly toying with crashing the global economy by tying the debt limit or Hurricane Sandy relief to their legislative priorities. There’s little appetite for mimicking the hardball tactics Democrats once characterized as a form of nihilism.

“We've always said we're the responsible governing party, and playing chicken with the debt ceiling or having a government shutdown ultimately erodes people's faith in governance,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) said, adding that he’s the son of immigrants and will be fighting to protect the DACA recipients.

Khanna is normally one of the House Democrats least shy about criticizing Democratic leadership. But this time he said Pelosi did the right thing. “Maybe I haven't been in Washington long enough, but I don’t think that copying the strategies of Ted Cruz is the way to advance our moral and policy agenda,” Khanna said

Other progressive Democrats were similarly supportive of not tying the debt ceiling or the Hurricane Harvey bill to DACA. “It’s not easy when you’re a leader holding your caucus together, but Pelosi’s done a fabulous job of it,” Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) told me. “Now, we have to go to war on DACA.”

Using leverage now or later

But the main reason Democrats are claiming the deal as a win is because they say it gives them the debt ceiling “gun” to point at congressional Republicans. The Freedom Caucus notoriously hates raising the debt ceiling, and leadership needs Democratic votes to get it through. Had Ryan gotten the debt ceiling extended for two years instead of three months, their thinking goes, then Democrats couldn’t use the debt ceiling to force a DREAM Act vote.

“I think we’re using our leverage now, and we’re going to continue to have leverage because it’s an ongoing event,” Crowley (D-NY) said when asked about Gutierrez’s criticisms.

Asked why activists should have confidence Democrats will use their debt ceiling leverage in December to win on DACA if they couldn’t now, Crowley added: “We’re extending it for three months, and then we can extend it for three months ... So having these votes actually gives us leverage.”

Another argument is that the deal staves off potential budget changes sought by congressional Republicans. The “continuing resolution” agreed to in the budget deal keeps the government funded at preexisting levels. As long as the debt ceiling is tied to the government funding package, Republicans will need Democratic votes — which keeps draconian cuts sought by conservatives off the table.

“If the Republicans had their act together, they could slash things left and right. But they haven't,” one House Democratic aide noted. “This isn’t a progressive win by any measure, but it allows us to fight another day.”

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