Politics

Congress Finally Has a Budget

But still no path for Dreamers.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi walks into a Democratic caucus meeting.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi walks into a Democratic caucus meeting.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Five hours and 25 minutes after funding for the government lapsed, and with three minutes left to vote, only three House Democrats had voted to support a two-year budget agreement that had emerged hours earlier from the Senate, while 33 had voted against it. It was a crawl to the finish as Democrats waited out the clock, carefully observing how many votes their Republican counterparts would post. At that point, 158 Republicans had voted for it, and it didn’t seem that that many more would come.

Then, with two minutes left, the thumbs-down signal came from the Democratic whip team: Time to release the “no” votes. A hundred or so Democrats lined up to post their opposition. With time expired and a little more than 300 total votes counted, the gavel came down, and Democrats called for more time. The slow display didn’t go over well with Republican members. “Make your decision and fucking vote,” one Republican member griped to another as they exited the chamber after the early morning vote, which had been delayed by Sen. Rand Paul’s filibuster in the Senate.

The budget bill, in the end, passed 240 to 186. Sixty-seven Republicans voted against it, about what was expected. But 73 Democrats voted for it, notably higher than estimates of 50 or 60 that had been floating Thursday evening.

Though the entire Democratic leadership voted against the bill, it’s hard to believe that this isn’t the result they wanted given the weakness of their position.

The mixed signals leaders were sending earlier in the day—did they want to block this? Were they whipping against it?—formed a unifying, unmistakable signal: They were not comfortable blocking a bill that’s a steal for Democratic spending priorities in a Congress where Democrats control nothing. They were not comfortable risking a “Pelosi shutdown” that Republicans would use against them, and other promising Democratic candidates, every hour for the remainder of this election year. And they did not believe that a shutdown would have served Dreamers’ interests well in the end if they took the blame for a second shutdown.

Were Democratic leaders privately relieved that the bill had passed?

“Yes,” Virginia Rep. Gerry Connolly, one of the 73 Democrats who voted for the bill, told me.

“I don’t see the nexus between Dreamers and shutting down the government,” he said. “In fact, quite the opposite: I believe that harm would have flowed. … What we saw in the last [shutdown] was that public support actually fell. When you make that connection, Dreamers suffer.”

Pelosi didn’t have to say a word. She has control over her caucus. If she genuinely wanted the bill to fail, there was more she could have done to make that happen. Instead, she didn’t use all of the tools available to her in whipping opposition, and 73 Democrats took the hint.

Democrats were unable to squeeze a viable path for resolving the Dreamer crisis out of House Speaker Paul Ryan. But now is when Ryan will begin to feel the real pressure. Ryan is on the record, time and again, expressing his conviction that Dreamers must be helped. If the Senate can produce a narrow, bipartisan bill next week that protects Dreamers and allocates some money to border security, all of the attention will turn to Ryan as the March 5 expiration of DACA nears.

I asked Kentucky Rep. John Yarmouth, another Democrat who voted for the budget, why he thought the pressure on House Republicans to accept a Senate compromise would work this time when the same strategy didn’t work for the 2013 comprehensive immigration reform bill.

“Going into an election year,” he said, “I don’t think Paul Ryan wants to see, every night on the news, Dreamers being torn away from their families.”

Jim Newell

Jim Newell is a Slate staff writer.