Some members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus are accusing Democratic leadership of downplaying the border security funding that was tucked into a massive government spending bill last month, calling it a “down payment” on a wall along the US-Mexico border.
While practically all Democrats voted for the bill, these CHC members want assurances from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi that the caucus will oppose any funding for President Donald Trump’s proposed wall, and some are even willing to shut down the government over it.
“I think Pelosi misled our caucus in the last supplemental because it was $300 million allocated for replacement fencing in Arizona and California, and moving forward we can’t let our leadership mislead us,” Texas Rep. Filemon Vela said at a Congressional Hispanic Caucus meeting with reporters late last month.
“In my view, if you voted yes on that budget, you are voting for the down payment that Donald Trump talks about on his wall,” Vela later told BuzzFeed News.
Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva and California Rep. Luis Correa both told BuzzFeed News that they also viewed the funding for replacement fencing as wall funding. And Grijalva said that he too was worried about leadership’s willingness to hold the line going forward.
“Leadership took the position that they would not fund the wall. We felt it was still a down payment that was moving in that direction, we voted that way, and we hope they stick to their guns that they’re not going to fund the wall,” Grijalva said.
Democratic leadership pushed back aggressively on the idea that they misled the caucus and argued that they were successful in preventing any funding for the wall — one of President Donald Trump’s earliest campaign promises — from going through. And other members of the CHC, more than half of whom voted for the spending bill, agreed.
"This was in no way a down payment on the wall,” California Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, a member of the Appropriations Committee, which writes government spending bills, told BuzzFeed News in a statement. “Opposition to new border barriers and minimizing funding for ICE interior enforcement were paramount goals for the committee [Democrats] and the House Democratic leadership. That reflected a broad consensus in the Democratic Caucus, including members like me who represent large Latino constituencies."
A House Democratic leadership aide said “generally” the agreed-upon standard for what would constitute wall funding for Democrats is any new fencing or concrete. Last month’s spending bill provided just under $500 million for border security, including $341 million for fencing. But that money was “to replace approximately 40 miles of existing primary pedestrian and vehicle border fencing along the southwest border.”
“I don’t see how anyone can say the omnibus is down payment for a wall when there is no money for concrete of any kind,” the aide said in an email.
Pelosi and other members of leadership have expressed universal opposition to the wall, and a Pelosi spokesman said that hasn’t changed.
"Leader Pelosi has long said that President Trump's border wall proposal is immoral, unwise and expensive. The proposal continues to have strong, bipartisan opposition in the Congress,” Drew Hammill, a spokesman for Pelosi, told BuzzFeed News in a statement.
In total, just 15 Democratic members voted no on the last spending bill, many of them members of the CHC. But the bloc was far too small to affect its passage, even combined with the 103 Republicans who also voted no.
Nonetheless, Arizona Rep. Ruben Gallego told BuzzFeed News that some CHC members will be “demanding” a meeting with leadership and members of the Appropriations Committee “as soon as possible” after members return to Washington Tuesday to make it clear that the wall is not negotiable.
“We’re going to hear a lot of— not excuses, but I think a lot of reasons why this was still a good budget,” Gallego said when asked what they would expect to hear from Democratic leaders. “And that may be the case, and fine, we don’t need to focus on this budget, but the next budget, we need to make it absolutely clear that this is not something that we’re willing to mess around with, that we’re going to just ignore.”
One CHC member told BuzzFeed News that the “real fight” would be over new construction.
“I think we’re going to have to continue to put pressure on Democrat leadership and Republican leadership,” the member said about opposition to the wall.
Several members said that it has been difficult to keep focus on the wall when the House has been kept busy with other priorities, including health care, and attention has been elsewhere. The quick timeline for the last spending bill, which passed the House just three days after it was released in order to avoid a government shutdown, didn’t help either.
“It was rushed,” Gallego said of the last spending bill. “It was rushed, and I don’t think [Democratic leadership] took enough opinion in from caucus members, especially the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.”
New York Rep. Adriano Espaillat, another member of the CHC who voted no, disagreed. “I think the leaders are sensitive to the issues of immigration,” Espaillat told BuzzFeed News. “I think leadership is sensitive to that. They bring it up, and they have expressed their concern about it. But at the end of the day, the budget process is sort of like a trade-off process, right, when you cannot have everything you want.”
When asked if he would like to hear leadership say that the wall is non-negotiable, Espaillat said, “I don’t want to put words in leadership’s mouths,” adding “they need to say what they want to say and what they feel, and you know my job is to convince them that this is important.”
The next time lawmakers have to negotiate funding the government, the stakes may be higher for Democrats. This time, Congress plans to pass a full-year funding bill, as opposed to the four-and-a-half month stopgap they passed in May. The president’s proposed budget calls for $2.6 billion in “high-priority tactical infrastructure and border security technology, including funding to plan, design, and construct a physical wall along the southern border,” the budget proposal states.
Although congressional Republicans have distanced themselves from Trump’s proposed 2018 budget, and Congress will ultimately write its own budget, it’s unclear whether wall funding will make it into the final product.
Some Democrats are concerned that if wall funding comes up in the next spending bill, it won’t be straightforward.
“I don’t know that the wall is going to show up as ‘the wall’ in the budget,” Espaillat said. “I think it will come up as something else, not necessarily the wall. So I have to see the entire funding allocation and see some of the detail language, and that may not necessarily say that is the building of the wall, but it may very well turn out to be for that.”
Espaillat, who also voted no in May based on immigration concerns, added that he thought everyone was “sophisticated enough” to understand what the money would go toward.
While even Democrats who saw the last spending bill as early support for the wall say they’re in favor of providing some support for border security, they’re urging their leadership to use their leverage in the spending fight ahead.
“Obviously I think border security and customs do extremely important work for the safety of the nation, and we should make sure that they’re absolutely functional and supported in that area,” Gallego said. “But to put money above what is necessary to satisfy Trump’s ego and to somehow get Republicans on board [as in the last spending bill] is absolutely unnecessary, considering that it’s Republicans that need our vote, not the other way around.”
Asked if he’d be OK with government shutting down if it came down to the wall, Gallego said: “Absolutely.”
John Stanton contributed reporting.