Dems abruptly pull border bill, avoiding intraparty fight

By Sarah Ferris
"There are a number of things that need to be dealt with," House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told reporters.

House Democratic leaders on Thursday punted a vote on a sweeping bill that would have overhauled Trump's migrant detention policies, backing away from a major battle within their caucus over immigration on the eve of their six-week summer recess.

Top Democrats had furiously worked to win support for a border bill this week from Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas), a freshman representing a border district who has become one of the top advocates to fix conditions for migrants.

Democratic leaders had agreed earlier Thursday to pursue a more narrow version of that bill — a balancing act to quell a moderate rebellion without losing the caucus’s left wing progressives. But the caucus ultimately decided to wait to consider the full legislation until September.

"There are a number of things that need to be dealt with," House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters as he left a meeting with top Democrats on the fate of the legislation. "And I think we need to do that in a thoughtful way, not at the last minute."

Talks remained ongoing until late Thursday, as Democrats attempted to pass a major bill before August recess amid a mounting border crisis, with members describing some migrants' conditions as prison-like.

Hoyer announced that they would pull the bill after emerging from a meeting in Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office, which included leaders of key factions of the caucus, including Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), Congressional Hispanic Caucus chief Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) and Blue Dog Coalition co-chair Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.).

Pelosi and Hoyer had been negotiating with Escobar, moderates, and progressives to find a path forward for the legislation, which was initially aimed at broadly overhauling the Trump administration’s migrant detention policies.

Escobar had announced during a closed-door meeting Thursday morning that she had agreed to key changes to her border bill, focusing squarely on accountability and oversight.

"We made changes last night," Escobar said Thursday morning. "In the meantime, I'm talking to my colleagues, hoping to have resolved concerns."

"It was a bit ambitious," Escobar added of the one-week turnaround to pass the bill, adding that she plans to renew her push for the rest of the legislation this fall.
A group of centrists, including leaders of the Blue Dog Coalition and vulnerable freshmen, had urged leadership to punt the bill this week, arguing the bill went too far for them to support and there wasn't enough time to fully vet changes. A senior aide described the earlier bill as "full of political landmines."

"I know there are a lot of people who have questions about it," Rep. Tom O'Halleran, a co-chair of the Blue Dog Coalition, said Wednesday. The Arizona Democrat said he had concerns with multiple parts of the bill, including whether a police officer could personally be sued over their role in separating families.

Some moderates also complained about a drastic change to the Department of Homeland Security's "catch and release" policy, which bans the department from detaining migrants for more than 72 hours. Some Democrats fear it could result in more people being released into border communities.

There were also concerns about plans to repeal a Trump policy known as the Migrant Protection Protocols, which requires migrants to be sent to Mexico as they await asylum proceedings in the U.S. — which some feared could cause a rush to the border and further overwhelm U.S. agents and facilities there.

Those contentious provisions were taken out of the bill, and would instead be considered this fall, according to a person familiar with the negotiations.

The latest version of the bill contains elements that are widely endorsed throughout the caucus — cracking down on family separations, stepping up training and performance reviews for border agents and creating sweeping new oversight over DHS.

Democratic leaders, including Pelosi, had worked aggressively to put the Escobar bill on the floor this week as a response to dozens of lawmakers’ recent visits to detention centers, where they encountered overcrowded facilities, a lack of resources and a poor commitment to transparency.

"I think there were some concerns about the impact to the flow at the border," Hoyer said Thursday.

Escobar’s broader bill would be among the House Democratic caucus's strongest bills to date in response to the migrant crisis.

Escobar, for her part, had sought to bring more members on board with her bill in part by dispelling myths, like the falsehood that migrants would receive Obamacare coverage before they receive asylum.

House Democrats also approved a border bill Wednesday night that would set humanitarian standards for migrants in U.S. detention, authored by Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.).

But the vote once again exposed the Democratic party's struggle to unite behind immigration issues: Dozens of Democrats bucked their leadership to support a GOP procedural vote, delivering Republicans another talking points and undercutting the caucus's win.

John Bresnahan and Heather Caygle contributed reporting.