Most Americans don't think that securing a future for Dreamers, the undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children, is worth the price of shutting down the federal government. Is House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi like most people?
Pelosi performed the House equivalent of a Senate filibuster this week, using her prerogative as a party leader to speak indefinitely on the House floor. For hours – she was still there as I wrote this – she read letters from immigrants who had grown up in the U.S. but are now anxious, under Donald Trump's anti-immigrant administration, that they might be deported.
Her rationale may have gotten lost in the stream of accolades to Dreamers who attend college, who provide relief in natural disasters and who generally make fine Americans of themselves.
With the government unfunded in a matter of days, and its debt ceiling unlifted, Democrats have leverage to achieve specific goals despite being in the minority on both sides of Congress. Pelosi fears they're about to surrender it.
A bipartisan deal in the Senate to fund the government announced by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer achieves a couple of Democratic goals. It raises domestic spending in conjunction with defense spending and finances health care for children. But it leaves Dreamers' fate unresolved.
McConnell had previously agreed to allow a debate on immigration in the Senate. Before signing on to the deal Pelosi wants a similar commitment from House Speaker Paul Ryan. "Give us a vote," she said on the House floor. "That's what we're asking for is just a vote."
That's a tall order for Ryan. While the majority of the House would likely support a legalization path for Dreamers, the GOP is an anti-immigrant party now. The headquarters of Republican attacks on immigrants is the White House, the source of Muslim bans and deportations of immigrants who haven't seen a border in years. It was Trump who created the Dreamer crisis by rescinding President Barack Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the executive action that protected registered Dreamers from deportation and allowed them to work and go to school.
But the House GOP was anti-immigrant before Trump ever got to town. Indeed, Trump's path to his party's nomination in 2016 was paved by Republican invective in the House. After killing the comprehensive immigration reform that passed the Senate with a super-majority in 2013, House Republicans went on to produce a steady stream of anti-immigrant proposals – including legislation that stripped Dreamers of protection.
Representative Steve King of Iowa, whose notoriety is precisely calibrated to his bigotry, speaks as crudely as he wants without fear of censure from Republican leaders. Ryan, like Speaker John Boehner before him, is not the leader of his conference on the issue of immigration. He is the nativists' perpetually humbled servant.
A court order has, for now, eased the threat to the roughly 700,000 Dreamers who are registered with the government. But with Trump in the White House, it surely hasn't removed it. That Pelosi feels this more keenly than Schumer may simply be a function of their starkly different work environments.
The difference stems from more than just a 60-vote threshold for legislation in the Senate. There are committed liberals among Senate Democrats, but no Hispanic Caucus as in the House. While nativists rule the House, in the Senate, the hard-core anti-immigration core of the GOP basically consists of two men, Tom Cotton and David Perdue. McConnell was able to promise a debate on immigration in part because few in his caucus are vocally anti-immigrant.
Pelosi, whose meager communication skills prompt many to underestimate her leadership skills, may not have an end game. After all, talking for hours on end is generally a sign that you have nothing else up your sleeve.
But surveying the landscape, she may have concluded that she needs a clear statement of priorities right now more than a strategy. In Trump's Washington, things can change quickly. Pelosi has decided to think on her feet and see if that somehow inspires Ryan to do likewise.
About The Writer
Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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