Democrats who voted on a spending bill this week to keep the federal government open are facing backlash from their party for not demanding a permanent solution for thousands of undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children.
Immigration advocates in and out of Congress are railing against those who voted for the stopgap spending bill Thursday despite promises from Democratic leaders that they would force action on the issue by the end of the year. Even before the Senate vote, a group of House Democrats burst into the office of Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), the Senate minority leader, demanding an explanation. Protesters shouting “Shame on Kaine!” briefly occupied the office of Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who said he voted for the measure to prevent a partial government shutdown and protect federal employees.
“Every single Democrat who voted for the continuing resolution just voted to deport ‘dreamers’ and leave kids without access to health insurance,” said Murshed Zaheed, the political director of the California-based progressive group CREDO Action. “Quite frankly, it’s a pathetic way for the Democratic Party’s leadership to close out a year in which millions of Americans fought back and resisted the Trump regime’s racist, xenophobic and dangerous agenda.”
The internal party drama is sure to increase the pressure on Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to pass the Dream Act in January, when the latest stopgap spending bill is set to expire. It also threatens the party’s unity — and perhaps divisive primary challenges — at a time when Democrats are looking ahead to the 2018 midterms with new optimism that they have a chance to take control of both chambers.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) appears to have anticipated the backlash. Feinstein, who is up for election next year in the state with the largest population of “dreamers,” surprised activists earlier this week when she said she would vote for the spending bill rather than risk a shutdown over immigration. But Feinstein switched her vote at the last minute.
A new poll, and pressure from activists, may have played a role in her thinking. On Wednesday, the University of California at Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies released a survey showing her leading by 14 points in a race against Kevin de León, the Democratic leader in the California Senate. De León, who has been in the race for two months, was among the loudest voices demanding that Feinstein oppose the stopgap bill.
“I’ve talked with them, I’ve met with them, I understand their plight and it breaks my heart,” Feinstein said in a statement. “To allow these young people to suffer is tragic.”
The push for immigration legislation erupted in September, after President Trump vowed to end a program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, which was instituted by former president Barack Obama via executive action and allowed some immigrants brought into the country as children to stay legally.
At the time, Pelosi and Schumer pledged to enshrine the protections of DACA into law quickly, and advocates have kept the pressure up to ensure they do. Democratic leaders chose not to push the issue this week, however, believing they have stronger prospects for a deal next month, when Republicans will be under pressure to approve a budget deal including defense spending and disaster relief..
Some advocates acknowledged that the prospects will be stronger after the holidays.
“In January, Democrats have leverage and need to deliver; Republicans have control and need to govern,” wrote Frank Sharry, the director of the pro-immigration reform group America’s Voice, on Friday. “If Democrats insist the Dream Act is a must-pass priority and Republicans are willing to negotiate a decent policy approach, it will pass and both parties will benefit.”
Still, emotions ran high. United We Dream, an immigrant advocacy group that dispatched protesters to the Hill all week, announced on Thursday that it would “go after Democrats that are now the #DeportationCaucus, the shameful Senators and Representatives who voted to deport immigrant youth.”
The group also released a video showcasing all of their protests inside the Capitol, with a warning to Democrats: “We’ve taken over your offices. We’ve blocked your tunnels. We’ve closed your cafeterias. Because we’re not going anywhere.”
On Thursday afternoon, Rep. Luis V. Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) led a delegation from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus into a bitter showdown with Schumer. DACA recipients, Gutiérrez said, were being thrown “under the bus” out of convenience. Schumer told Gutiérrez to stop insulting his fellow Democrats.
Gutiérrez shot back, telling Schumer, “Don’t raise your voice.” Ultimately, the meeting ended amicably, with an understanding that Democrats would take up the fight again in January but that activists are justifiably frustrated.
Members who voted for the spending bill, which keeps the government open until Jan. 19, will be pressured to block next month’s version if a DACA fix fails to materialize. That includes seven of the 10 Democrats facing reelection next year in states won by Trump. Just three Democrats up in Trump states — Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), and Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) — opposed the spending bill. If nine more Democrats had opposed the bill, it would have stalled, giving United We Dream and their allies a strategy and a hit list for January.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) was not among them. Earlier in the week, Nelson had left open the possibility of opposing the spending bill as protesters camped out in his office. But he ultimately supported it.
Republicans, who initially worried that the end of DACA could backfire on their party, have taken some pleasure in the Democrats’ agony — and are unlikely to make it any easier for them. At his year-end news conference Friday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said a DACA working group would get “some floor time in January,” but he cautioned that Republicans wanted DACA coupled with reforms “that improve the legal immigration system” — an unreasonable demand for activists who have demanded a “clean Dream Act” and no less.
“Schumer is trying to push it forward, and I understand that,” McConnell said. “But there is no emergency until March.”
The issue is also affecting the relationship between party leaders and its base. New liberal organizations that have sprouted since Trump’s election have allied with Democrats to block efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act — and helped ensure that every Democrat voted against the GOP’s tax-cut package.
The fight for the Dream Act is messier, reminiscent of previous direct-action campaigns for gay rights and civil rights, when Democrats who thought themselves to be politically safe faced sit-ins and hecklers. Schumer, whom protesters targeted at the start of the year because he did not oppose more of Trump’s nominees, will face fresh protests this weekend for not bringing his caucus behind an effective DACA strategy. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), the party’s preferred candidate for Arizona’s open Senate seat, has also courted controversy with progressives by backing the spending bill in the House.
“Those 32 Democrats who voted for this bill voted to deport Dreamers,” said Angel Padilla, the policy director of the Indivisible Project, in a statement referring to both House and Senate Democrats. “Nearly 4,000 DACA recipients will lose their status between now and January 19, when this current CR expires. Indivisible groups in each of their states will remember this vote.”
But Feinstein’s surprise move against the continuing resolution, or CR, demonstrated how complicated the politics still are. Feinstein, whose national reputation as a liberal Democrat conflicts with her center-left role in California politics, is facing the most credible primary challenge of any Democrat up for reelection next year.
"Dreamers make up hundreds of thousands of Sen. Feinstein's constituents, and while talking a good game on Dreamers, when it comes to standing up and supporting them, she is AWOL," de León said at a Wednesday morning news conference, before Feinstein changed her position. "Don't come back to California if you haven't demonstrated your leadership and your courage to stand up for these young men and women."
California’s top-two primary system, which produced an all-Democratic race for Senate in 2016, may put Feinstein in a prolonged race with de León. Even after siding with activists, progressives plan to hold Feinstein accountable in the primary, citing her vote as a reason she can’t always be trusted.
“By dragging her feet and reinforcing the notion that she was either indifferent or outright hostile to the plight of the dreamers, Feinstein just gave De León a much-needed opening,” said Markos Moulitsas, the Berkeley-based founder of the progressive blog and activism resource Daily Kos. “It just reminded core Democrats that we can’t count on Feinstein to do the right thing without having to pressure her to do so. In California, we should be able to count on our senators to automatically do the right thing.”