In one of the most stinging defeats in her current tenure as House speaker, Nancy Pelosi acceded to Republican demands on a funding bill for border agencies on Thursday. Her caucus split and devolved into chaos when the House tried to pass a version of the bill with added protections for the migrant children held in the administration's custody, so she backed down and agreed to let the House approve the Senate's version in a bipartisan vote without any additional provisions.
Instead, she got a promise from the vice president that the administration would make modest tweaks regarding the treatment of migrant children in custody, the New York Times reported:
Her retreat came after Vice President Mike Pence gave Ms. Pelosi private assurances that the administration would voluntarily abide by some of the restrictions and rules that she had sought, including notifying lawmakers within 24 hours after the death of a migrant child in government custody, and placing a 90-day limit on children spending time in temporary intake facilities, according to a person familiar with the discussions.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell confirmed publicly that Pelosi and Pence discussed steps the administration could take to improve conditions.
The conflict arose after multiple reports in recent days revealed that the conditions migrant children have been forced to endure in the administration's custody have been horrendous. They often lack basic care, hygiene products, and medical treatment. Republicans have been calling for more funding for Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but progressives have been skeptical that the problem has been a lack of funding. Instead, they believe giving the Trump administration more funding could just empower the abusive agencies without addressing the abysmal conditions.
But moderates in the Democratic caucus didn't do much to help. The Times reported that a large portion of the Democratic lawmakers balked when the House bill was set to reduce funding for ICE, a measure that moderates felt could hurt them in their districts. With the press of an upcoming congressional recess, the administration hanging the treatment of children in the balance, and the Majority of Senate Democrats having already signed on to a funding bill in their own chamber, Pelosi backed down from the demands.
The House approved a bill to send $4.6 billion in funding to support the agencies responding to the migrant crisis. It will now go to the president for his signature.
If Pelosi took Pence's meager promises seriously, however, she made a big mistake. As I argued during January's fight over the government shutdown, Pence has repeatedly represented himself as an authoritative representative for the administration, only for Trump to come in and completely undermine him. For an issue like the administrative treatment of migrant children, which Pence is likely to have no direct hand in and even Trump himself is far removed from, his word is even less than worthless.
But Pelosi was backed into a corner, not by the administration, but by her fellow Democrats. The Democrats who supported the bill in the Senate put extreme pressure on her to pass it, and the fracturing of the party in the House left her little choice. But that's not an excuse for Pelosi. The reason she has her job is because she was seen as the best person to keep the Democrats together as a united front. This week, she failed.