Not 30 minutes after a group of border-state House Democrats accused Chuck Schumer of betraying them on President Donald Trump’s wall, the Senate minority leader picked up the phone to protest.
Retract your statement, Schumer urged Rep. Henry Cuellar last Thursday.
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The Texas Democrat and his colleagues had expressed “alarm and opposition” to comments Schumer made about backing more funding for the border.
Schumer argued that he was firmly opposed to Trump’s wall with Mexico and would never give in so easily. But Cuellar refused the request.
“I said, ‘No, I’m not going to withdraw the letter because we don’t want you weakening House negotiations for Democrats,” Cuellar recounted of his conversation with Schumer.
House and Senate Democrats are now openly sniping at each other over Trump’s border wall, a division that could weaken their hand in critical spending talks over the coming days.
The president wants a $5 billion down payment for the wall and has threatened a partial government shutdown if he doesn’t get his way. Congress has until Friday to pass a funding bill, though Trump said late Saturday night that he is open to a short-term extension.
But while some Senate Democrats are open to funding at least part of Trump’s request, newly emboldened House Democrats want to hold the line and refuse to provide even a penny.
Indeed, House Democrats and outside liberal groups fret that Schumer — and the broader Senate Democratic conference — are going to sell them out on the wall. Progressives have already begun lashing out at Schumer for offering up $1.6 billion as the starting point for negotiations surrounding the southern structure.
House Democrats argue they never agreed to that amount. And they say it’s up to Schumer to be the last line of defense against Trump’s hard-line immigration policies until they take power in January.
“I’ve heard it from other members, and it’s my feeling as well, that he could agree to something that basically puts those of us in sincere opposition to that wall in a bind,” said Rep. Raúl Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat who also signed the Cuellar letter. “There’s already $1.5 [billion from last year]. No more.”
Schumer’s office pushed back on the notion that he and his members are undercutting the party’s negotiating strategy and accused Cuellar and his colleagues of “putting words in Schumer’s mouth and they know it.”
Senate Democrats say they are backing $1.6 billion for “border security,” not a “wall” — though technically the money would fortify miles of tall fencing along the border, which many consider a wall.
“Schumer has been clear since the beginning that he supports funding for non-wall border security — the same border security funding Rep. Cuellar voted for last year,” Schumer spokesman Justin Goodman said, adding: “This is much ado about nothing: we all agree and always have: no wall, no $5 billion. There is no dispute amongst us on this.”
Democrats may have a little more time to get on the same page.
Congress has a Friday deadline before large swaths of the federal government shut down, but Trump expressed a willingness to postpone the fight after the death of George H. W. Bush. The former president will lie in state at the Capitol for several days, complicating efforts to craft a major spending package.
GOP leaders are already discussing how to buy more time, with a one or two week delay likely.
Trump is also set to sit down with Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Tuesday, a meeting that for now is still on the calendar.
Meanwhile, even liberal Senate Democrats are standing by Schumer, arguing that the upper chamber’s bipartisan spending panel has already agreed to provide $1.6 billion. And when asked about criticism from progressive House lawmakers and outside groups, Senate Democrats dismissed their concerns.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said that “a zero demand from Sen. Schumer would have been as challenging for that [spending] process as a $5 billion wall demand from the president was.”
Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) said calling for no border wall funding was simply a nonstarter.
“Starting at zero may not get us very far,” she said. “I understand that perspective but we want to move the ball.”
Compare that to House Democrats, who are salivating for a fight following their 40-seat romp on Election Day. The House Democratic Caucus is brimming with emboldened liberals. And with control of the lower chamber flipping in five weeks, House Democrats are trying to be relevant as soon as possible.
In was in that vein that the leaders of the House Progressive Caucus, Reps. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) and Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), released a statement Friday urging their own leaders to “hold strong in providing zero funding for Trump’s ill-conceived border wall.”
House progressives have also privately raised their concerns with Pelosi in person. And the California Democrat assured them she will reject any new spending for the wall without significant immigration concessions, multiple lawmakers said.
Perhaps that’s why House Democrats have turned their ire on Schumer.
In the Cuellar letter to Schumer, released Thursday, a dozen Democrats from border districts told Schumer they were “alarmed” by “your comments that $1.6 billion for a physical wall along the border is the starting negotiation for the Democrats.”
“We believe the Democrats should oppose all funding for a physical wall along the U.S.-Mexico border in a FY 2019 appropriations package,” the letter said.
During their phone call, Schumer told Cuellar that the media was misconstruing what the $1.6 billion would cover, arguing that it was “border security” only. And at Schumer’s request, Cuellar later put out a statement suggesting both sides had ironed out their differences to agree no “wall” money was on the table.
But by the next day, when talking to POLITICO, it was clear that another clash might soon be around the corner.
“We had a very good conversation, Schumer and I,” Cuellar said. “He says that he did not say ‘wall money,’ and he wanted me to take my letter back, and I said, ‘I can’t do that because our position is very strong.’ We don’t want this.’”
Even House Democrats are not entirely united. Some have expressed a willingness to simply extend current funding for the Homeland Security Department since both parties disagree on what to do about the wall. But a so-called “continuing resolution” — which would maintain the status quo — would include some of the same fencing money that progressives say they now detest: This year, Congress set aside $1.3 billion to fund fencing and other border security measures.
In the end, House Democrats may not have much say in the matter. For another few weeks, the GOP-controlled House can largely steamroll Democrats. Any final deal-making is likely to come down to the Senate, where Republicans need at least nine of Schumer’s Democrats to support a funding bill.
That doesn’t mean progressives are going to be quiet about it.
Dozens of advocacy groups signed a letter Thursday urging top lawmakers in both chambers to reject any new funding for the wall and other Trump security priorities. Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International and the SEIU have also begun a full-court press on Capitol Hill to oppose border money in any form.
“There is serious concern in terms of where Schumer is on negotiations,” Joanne Lin, the head of U.S. government affairs for Amnesty International, said in an interview.
“Border agents, just a few days ago, were lodging tear gas at families,” Lin said, calling it out of the question” to give more money to the Department of Homeland Security.
Burgess Everett and Heather Caygle contributed to this report.