The decision by House Democratic leaders to bring the legislation up for a vote came after hours of frantic maneuvering during which Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) sought support for a new version of the bill containing additional protections for unaccompanied minors and restrictions on the administration’s use of funds.
But the White House made clear it opposed Pelosi’s changes, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he would not take them up. The Senate legislation passed Wednesday on a bipartisan vote of 84-to-8, and Republicans pointed repeatedly to that overwhelming margin in arguing Pelosi should agree to accept it.
On top of the GOP opposition, which had been expected, fresh problems emerged for the speaker Thursday morning when moderates in the House Democratic caucus began to revolt, threatening to block a key procedural vote unless Pelosi put the Senate bill on the House floor.
These moderates said they wanted to see the House act to address the border crisis, not get locked in a conflict with the Senate, especially with Congress about to leave Washington for a week-long Fourth of July recess.
“To leave is unacceptable and not to take care of these children is unacceptable,” said Rep. Jeff Van Drew (D-N.J.), a member of the moderate Blue Dog group. “And quite frankly, not to work out a compromise with the Senate, in my mind, is unacceptable.”
Ultimately, after hours of closed-door meetings with members of her caucus, Pelosi gave in to political reality and withdrew her proposed changes. The retreat underscored deep divisions among House Democrats that Pelosi had mostly been able to hold in check until now.
“The children come first. At the end of the day, we have to make sure that the resources needed to protect the children are available,” Pelosi said in a letter to colleagues. “ . . . As we pass the Senate bill, we will do so with a battle cry as to how we go forward to protect children in a way that truly honors their dignity and worth.”
The legislation passed on the strength of GOP votes, with 176 Republicans voting yes, compared with 129 Democrats. Ninety-five Democrats opposed the legislation, as did seven Republicans.
But Pelosi’s decision to back off the push for more accountability from the Trump administration drew fury and bitter recriminations from some liberals in the House who deeply oppose the administration’s immigration policies.
“His Senate bill is a militarization bill. McConnell killed the House Bill & dropped this one right before recess to force passage,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) said on Twitter. “Well, too bad. This is our job. Cancel vacation, fly the Senate in. Pass a clean humanitarian bill & stop trying to squeeze crises for more pain.”
Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, trained his ire on the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, which had pushed for a vote on the Senate-passed bill.
“Since when did the Problem Solvers Caucus become the Child Abuse Caucus? Wouldn’t they want to at least fight against contractors who run deplorable facilities? Kids are the only ones who could lose today,” Pocan wrote on Twitter.
Pocan was later seen in a heated confrontation with Rep. Max Rose (D-N.Y.), a Problem Solvers member, who told reporters of Pocan’s tweet: “That type of language is tough to take,” and charged that Pocan “did it for the retweets.”
Republicans and moderate Democrats pointed out that without action, the agency responsible for caring for unaccompanied children who have flooded the border will run out of money within days, and conditions for minors in U.S. custody would worsen. Other agencies are also overburdened and short of funds, as huge numbers of Central Americans trying to reach U.S. soil have overwhelmed the system. Some migrants have died making the trip, while some children are being held in what observers describe as squalid conditions.
Failing to act “would be awful,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.).
“Look, they’re going to run out of money at the end of this month. It’s bad now. They’re reducing services down to the bare minimum in some of these places,” Cole said. “So we know that we need to get this done, and I’m very hopeful we will.”
The Senate bill includes $2.88 billion for the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which cares for unaccompanied children, as well as hundreds of millions of dollars more for Customs and Border Protection, the Pentagon and other agencies.
But some House Democrats said it gives the administration too much latitude to spend money in ways they oppose, and does not do enough to ensure protections for migrants in U.S. care.
Pelosi had hoped to amend the Senate bill with changes that included a 90-day limit for how long children can spend in holding facilities; less funding for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency; and a provision to ensure lawmakers could visit facilities that hold children without prior notice. The changes were aimed at making the Senate bill palatable to a majority of House Democrats.
But Senate Republicans and the Trump administration expressed strong opposition to Pelosi’s new bill Thursday. Pelosi had a nearly hour-long conversation with Vice President Pence around midday as she sought a solution, but Pence was adamant that the House pass the Senate bill.
Pence did agree to aim to implement administratively two changes sought by Pelosi: the 90-day limit on keeping children in influx facilities, and an agreement to notify Congress within 24 hours after the death of a child in custody, according to two officials familiar with their conversation who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss it.
In May, more than 144,000 migrants were taken into custody after crossing the border — the largest monthly total in more than a decade. Asylum filings also have skyrocketed, as have arrivals of unaccompanied children.
“This current episode needs to come to an end,” McConnell said of the legislation. “We’ve been playing with it for two months and this is the best we can do at the moment.”
Paul Kane contributed to this report