How Hard Will House Democrats Push for Dreamers?

Nancy Pelosi’s marathon speech is an impressive demonstration of stamina. But what’s the strategy?

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 31 in Washington.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 31 in Washington.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

As of this writing, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi is in the eighth hour of a speech in defense of Dreamers. It may already be the longest House speech in history. Early in the address, during which she’s read letter after letter from Dreamers, Pelosi stated her position: That without a commitment from Speaker Paul Ryan to set up neutral floor time for consideration of a bill to protect Dreamers, the budget agreement reached by Senate negotiators on Wednesday “does not have my support.”

Well, Ryan will be able to pass the budget agreement without Pelosi’s one vote. The question is whether Pelosi and the rest of the Democratic leadership will try to hold the caucus in opposition to the budget agreement in order to secure that commitment, or whether enough Democrats will support the agreement to put it over the top. One way to look at Pelosi’s “filibuster”—let us note that this monologue is not interrupting any scheduled House floor business—is that it’s the beginning of a push from a unified Democratic caucus to extract concessions from Ryan on Dreamers. Another way to look at it is as a ploy to demonstrate Pelosi’s commitment to the issue that saves some face, both among the base and angry members of her caucus, before the budget bill passes with a mixture of Republican and Democratic votes.

One convenient effect of Pelosi’s not-filibuster is that it left her too occupied to speak to reporters at a scheduled press conference Wednesday afternoon, the kickoff of the retreat that Democrats relocated from Maryland’s Eastern Shore to the Capitol. Pelosi’s top two lieutenants, Reps. Steny Hoyer and Jim Clyburn, also couldn’t attend. That put the onus on New York Rep. Joe Crowley, the chairman of the caucus, to bat away questions about Democrats’ strategy.

Crowley would not say if he’ll join Pelosi in opposing the agreement, saying he had not had time to leaf through it. He also said that members had plenty of nonimmigration concerns about the agreement, too, such as if whether it provides enough relief money to Puerto Rico. But when pressed about whether leaders will try to hold the line absent an immigration commitment from Ryan, he said that “people in our caucus will do what they think is in the best interest of their constituency and country.” Those are not words that tend to accompany an aggressive whipping strategy.

If Democrats were to hold the line, would Ryan budge? “No” is the conventional wisdom, especially after Ryan stated on Tuesday that he would not allow an immigration vote on the floor without President Trump’s support. The sort of open, “king/queen of the Hill”–style process on the floor that Pelosi wants, during which various bills would be brought and the one with the most support would be declared the victor, would likely produce the sort of immigration bill that Trump and conservatives oppose. But with conservatives and some rank-and-file Republicans rebelling against Ryan on the budget deal for its domestic spending increases, it would be hard for him to pin the blame for a shutdown on Democrats if he loses half of his own caucus. He has an incentive to deal, too.

One side effect of Pelosi’s speech is that it could stem some of the bleeding within Ryan’s ranks. North Carolina Rep. Mark Walker, chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, tweeted on Wednesday afternoon that the “Budget Caps Deal is a struggle for anyone with fiscal concerns.”

“However,” he continued, “the longer [Nancy Pelosi] bloviates on the House Floor against the deal - the more I’m inclined to support it.” Walker is always searching for the fig leaf he needs to abandon stated conservative principles and support President Trump. Pelosi’s speech will suffice. If enough Republicans can come around on their own, far fewer Democrats have to make a difficult choice and can side with their base.

A not-filibuster like Pelosi’s is an impressive demonstration of stamina, but it is not a strategy. A strategy would be what we read in a “Dear Colleague” letter from Pelosi that urges Democrats to vote en masse either for or against something. Pelosi probably doesn’t know what her strategy will be until she figures out how many votes Ryan needs from her.

The government runs out of funding Thursday night.