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Liberals angry with Trump administration treatment of migrant children force House leaders to amend border bill

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) speaks during a news conference announcing college affordability legislation on Capitol Hill on Monday. Ocasio-Cortez is opposing House Democratic legislation that would deliver $4.5 billion to address the southern border crisis. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News)

House Democratic leaders agreed to amend a bill delivering emergency aid to address a humanitarian crisis at the southern border after angry liberals threatened to withhold their votes over the Trump administration’s treatment of migrant children at detention centers.

Assistant Speaker Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) emerged Monday from a nearly two-hour meeting involving members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus — two groups that had expressed concerns about delivering additional funding to the Trump administration — and said a vote would proceed on Tuesday.

Changes to the $4.5 billion bill, he said, could be made before the vote to secure the necessary support from Democrats. “I think this bill will pass,” Lujan said.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called the meeting after news of poor conditions at U.S. Customs and Border Protection centers and President Trump’s threat of mass deportations cast doubt on whether Congress would be able to pass a border funding package before lawmakers leave Washington on Thursday for a week-long recess.

Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.) said Pelosi agreed to back changes to the bill detailing what constitutes humane treatment for migrant children in U.S. custody.

“There’s a way to change behavior rather than just funding a dysfunctional system,” he said. “If you give them soap and toothbrushes and yet the administration is arguing that these children do not need toothbrushes and soap, then you’re not going to change behavior. If you don’t mandate ‘allow them to bathe daily,’ then they’re still going to be without bathing for many days.”

Going into the meeting, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) attacked the idea that Congress would provide billions of dollars in more funding to detain unaccompanied children apprehended at the border. She cited numerous recent reports detailing the poor conditions at U.S. facilities.

“That’s not due to a lack of resources; that’s due to a desire — an active desire by this administration to hurt kids,” she said. “We need to stop funding the detention of children under any and all circumstances.”

But other Democrats have struck a more measured tone, with appropriators proposing nearly $1 billion for facilities, food, water and other humanitarian items and another $886 million for housing children outside shelters.

“We cannot allow our anger at this president to blind us to the horrific conditions at facilities along the border as the agencies run out of money,” House Appropriations Committee Chairman Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.) said in prepared remarks to be delivered to the House Rules Committee on Monday.

A senior Democratic aide said Pelosi in the meeting “expressed a desire to review specific proposals from members to further enhance protections for children” in the bill, with an eye toward amending it and passing it Tuesday.

The aide spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the internal discussions.

Exiting the meeting before its conclusion Monday, Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Tex.) said the situation was “truly an emergency” and that lawmakers are running out of time to address it.

The Department of Health and Human Services, which is responsible for caring for unaccompanied children who arrive at the border, said it will exhaust its funding at the end of the month. The worst conditions have been documented at border stations under the control of the Department of Homeland Security, where children have been held while they await HHS placement.

“Are there things I would like to change? Absolutely,” said Escobar, who represents a border district. “But we have a real crisis, and the reason why kids in [Homeland Security] custody are in dealing with such terrible conditions is because they’re running out of money. And we need to get that money.”

Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.) said he was inclined to back Lowey’s bill but acknowledged an intense internal debate among Democrats.

“I hate that saying, but in this particular situation, I pray that the perfect is not the enemy of the good,” he said. “We’ve got lives at stake; we’ve got the United States of America that has been looked at by the rest of the world as the gold standard . . . for how to treat human beings, especially when they’re fleeing violence and death. And I don’t think we should compromise that at all.”

Democrats will need a strong consensus among their 235 members to pass the bill. If all 435 members are present and voting, Democrats can afford no more than 17 defections.

House Democratic aides, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that party leaders left Washington on Friday believing they had reached an agreement that would pass muster with both the Hispanic and Progressive caucuses. But President Trump’s plan to proceed with deportations cast a shadow over the plan to pass the bill, and his decision Saturday to delay — not cancel — those deportations cast a cloud over action on the border funding bill.

Ocasio-Cortez and three other hard-left Democrats issued a statement Saturday insisting that they could not support the legislation, saying that it “continues to support a fundamentally cruel and broken immigration system.”

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said Monday evening that Republicans would not support the House bill but could instead support a bipartisan bill that emerged from a Senate committee last week. If House Democrats are unable to agree on their own legislation, giving them legislation to force further changes, Pelosi could be forced to hold a vote on the Senate bill — passing it with some Republican votes.

“The Senate bill is the bipartisan bill,” McCarthy said.

If the House passes its own bill Tuesday, it would still need to reach a deal with the Senate before a funding agreement is sent to Trump for his signature.

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