Josh Gottheimer Warned Democratic Leaders He Had Votes to Block Bill Mandating Better Conditions for Children in Detention

The bill passed by Congress “does nothing to hold a rogue agency accountable for its cruelty,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal.

WASHINGTON, DC, UNITED STATES - 2018/12/12: US Representative Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ) at the American Zionist Movement / AZM Washington Forum: Renewing the Bipartisan Commitment Standing with Israel and Zionism in the Capitol Visitor Center in Washington, DC. (Photo by Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Rep. Josh Gottheimer speaks at an event in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 12, 2018. Photo: Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

On Thursday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, boxed in by the Senate and centrist Democrats in her caucus, caved to Republicans on an emergency border funding bill. The Senate bill was put on the floor after New Jersey Rep. Josh Gottheimer, a Democrat and co-chair of the Problem Solvers Caucus, told House leaders he had the votes to scuttle a House version that mandated improved conditions for detained migrant children.

Gottheimer’s attempted power play was first reported by the Washington Post, and confirmed by The Intercept.

“In order to get resources to the children fastest, we will reluctantly pass the Senate bill,” Pelosi wrote in a letter to her colleagues Thursday afternoon. “As we pass the Senate bill, we will do so with a Battle Cry as to how we go forward to protect children in a way that truly honors their dignity and worth.” A spokesperson for Gottheimer didn’t return a request for comment. The caucus had discussed coming out against the House bill at the congressional softball game on Wednesday night, and there was dissent internally, but enough of the so-called Problem Solvers endorsed the strategy to allow it to go forward.

“The children come first,” Pelosi added. “At the end of the day, we have to make sure that the resources needed to protect the children are available. Therefore, we will not engage in the same disrespectful behavior that the Senate did in ignoring our priorities.”

On Wednesday, when asked if House Democrats would take up the Senate version of the legislation, Pelosi said no. Pelosi’s reversal came days after a searing photo, showing the bodies of a migrant father and his young daughter — Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and Angie Valeria — who drowned while trying to cross the Rio Grande, sparked international outrage.

Ezra Levin, a co-founder of grassroots advocacy group Indivisible, was among the many progressive leaders to slam Democrats for buckling. Despite contentious back-and-forths between the progressive and centrist wings of the party, the House passed the unamended Senate bill on an overwhelming 305-102 vote, with 95 Democrats voting no.

The House amendment would have taken away money from Immigration and Customs Enforcement and increased protections for children, among other oversight provisions. The Senate passed its version of the $4.6 billion emergency bill on Wednesday 84-8. A vote on the House version of the spending bill was beaten in the Senate 55-37, largely along party lines, with the 2020 Democratic presidential contenders missing the vote. The Senate’s vote meant House Democrats would have had to hold out to pressure the upper chamber to accept its version, while Gottheimer’s move sapped the House’s leverage. “The quote-unquote Problem Solvers Caucus, I think, threw us under the bus and undermined our position to actually be able to negotiate,” said Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz.

“Since when did the Problem Solvers Caucus become the Child Abuse Caucus?” asked Wisconsin Rep. Mark Pocan, co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “Wouldn’t they want to at least fight against contractors who run deplorable facilities? Kids are the only ones who could lose today.”

Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar joined Pocan in slamming the move, saying that a vote for Mitch McConnell’s border bill “is a vote to keep kids in cages and terrorize immigrant communities.”

When asked what Gottheimer’s objection to the House border bill was, Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal said it came down to “not giving as much ICE money as the Senate did.” She added that a bigger problem stemmed from the Senate Democrats putting them in a “terrible position” in the first place by voting on a bill that “does nothing to hold a rogue agency accountable for its cruelty,” doesn’t have any provisions to “ensure the money actually goes to the children,” or that “these for-profit agencies are held accountable.” She described herself as a “giant no” on the bill.

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus also recommended the House vote against the Senate border spending bill, saying the Republicans “cannot force us to accept this bill, which does not provide necessary guardrails” and allows the Trump administration to “continue denying kids basic, humane care and endangering their lives.”

New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez noted that the Senate didn’t even bother negotiating with the House. “We have time,” she said in a tweet. “We can stay in town. We can at LEAST add some amendments to this Senate bill. But to pass it completely unamended with no House input? That seems a bridge too far.”

The House failure led to widespread recriminations. Jayapal, Pocan, the CPC, and the CHC were blamed for urging House Democrats to pull out of negotiations with the Senate earlier this spring; Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer took heat for agreeing to a weak bill that left children vulnerable to abuse; Pelosi was slammed for caving; and Gottheimer’s Problem Solvers Caucus was widely derided for its unhelpful intervention. “The capitulation by the Problem Solvers and the Blue Dogs gave us no leverage here,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva, R-Ariz.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, and DCCC Chair Cheri Bustos voted in favor of the bill, while other members of leadership, including Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries, and Assistant Speaker Ben Ray Luján, who is running for Senate in New Mexico, voted against it.

“We need a bill that delivers funds to end the humanitarian crisis,” Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib said on Twitter. “Not funds to continue caging children & deny asylum seekers the help they need. Not funds to continue the harmful policies. If you see the Senate bill as an option, then you don’t believe in basic human rights.”

Correction: July 1, 2019

This story originally misidentified the leadership title of Ben Ray Luján. He is assistant speaker.

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