Democrats risk a new progressive rebellion as Biden embraces border deal

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“It’s bad immigration policy. It’s bad for our economy,” said Rep. Greg Casar. “It’s not humane.” | Francis Chung/POLITICO

Progressives are frustrated with President Joe Biden for embracing the bipartisan border security deal that’s emerging in the Senate. And they’re starting to rage against it more loudly.

It’s not the only area where the left is fuming at the Biden administration — its handling of the the Israel-Hamas war has sparked public protests by progressive activists for months. Once the border deal sees the light of day, however, liberal anger is likely to boil over.

That’s partly because Senate negotiators have ruled out serious immigration concessions to the left, such as permanent status for Dreamers, a decision that effectively shifts the negotiations toward the GOP. Progressives are also watching Biden tack to the right by swearing he’ll
shut down the southern border, using authority that the still unreleased bill is set to give him, if Republicans help pass it.

“The president would just do very well to remember it has never worked for Democrats to just take up Republican talking points and think that somehow Republicans are going to turn around and thank us for it,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the chair of the Progressive Caucus. “That’s just not going to happen.”

It has the makings of a potential Democratic crackup, if the border proposal that’s now on the rocks in the Senate manages to stay alive. Speaker Mike Johnson is signaling the border deal is “dead on arrival” with his House Republicans, but liberal opposition could prove just as problematic even if Johnson is persuaded to act on it.

Democratic leaders have avoided any criticism that could further endanger the monthslong border talks; House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries said Monday that his caucus would evaluate it once they could review bill text, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has welcomed the negotiations. But progressives are openly predicting that the entire effort could backfire by further alienating a party base that’s already disillusioned by the war in Gaza.

“It’s bad immigration policy. It’s bad for our economy. It’s not humane. It’s bad for Americans, and then I think it’s bad politics as well. I don’t think that we should be accepting a hostage-taking situation and Trump-light policies as Democrats,” said Rep. Greg Casar (D-Texas).

The calculus is quite different for Democratic incumbents in battleground states and districts. They have increasingly signaled their willingness to cut a deal that could alleviate a huge electoral vulnerability by showing that the Biden administration can tackle spiking migration.

While the text of Senate negotiators’ proposed policy changes isn’t available yet, people close to the talks have signaled that the final product is likely to expand details’ expulsion authorities, restrict claims for parole and asylum, and set triggers that would close the border altogether if crossings surpass a certain daily threshold.

“You have got to make decisions based on what’s the right thing to do. And we need stronger border security,” said Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.).

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), one of the caucus’ two endangered red-state incumbents, said that “we need to give [the president] the tools so he can do what we need to do to keep this country safe.”

In the House, where Democratic leaders are waiting for details of the border deal to firm up further before weighing in, the party’s purple-district incumbents sound much like Tester.

“I hope we get a bipartisan border security bill out of the Senate that gets put on the House floor that I can support,” said Rep. Angie Craig (D-Minn.), who said she could “absolutely” support a bipartisan deal.

Rep. Vicente Gonzalez (D-Texas) praised the emerging package as “a good deal” that would give Biden “the tools he needs to solve the problems that most of the American people are complaining about on our southern border.” If Republicans don’t put it on the House floor, he added, “this will be on them.”

Senate border negotiators still hope to present a deal to members of both parties this week. It would be tacked on to the White House’s national security emergency spending request, which includes aid for Ukraine, Israel, Taiwan and the southern border. With both chambers and the White House on the line this fall, though, the party is painfully aware that an intraparty squabble with the left could materialize.

Even beyond the Progressive Caucus, key House Democratic voting blocs are riled up about the talks and airing anxiety about what the White House might concede to Republicans. The “Tri-Caucus” of groups representing minority voters is also leery of the Senate’s deal, with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus particularly outraged at its exclusion so far from the talks — though some members in Tri-Caucus groups have cracked open the door to supporting it.

“Republicans are just getting what they want on the border, but then we aren’t getting reforms on immigration. And so it doesn’t feel like there’s a give and take here,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).

Some progressives see a potential border deal between Biden and Republicans as a betrayal of his promises to reverse former President Donald Trump’s hardline immigration policies.

Others outright argue the border security provisions Republicans have proposed, such as tightening asylum standards, would actually increase migration problems by increasing the number of illegal migrants. That would give further political fodder to the GOP, those Democrats say.

The deal risks resulting in “a lot more people either camped out on the Mexico side of the border or having to rely more on criminal organizations to migrate because we’re trying some ineffective, Republican-like policies,” Casar said.

White House spokesperson Andrew Bates told POLITICO in a statement that “the American people overwhelmingly agree with what President Biden underlined in his Day One reform plan: that our immigration system is broken and we have an imperative to secure the border and treat migrants with dignity.”

The intraparty tension helps explain why many Democrats are careful to put the onus on Republicans to support the mostly opaque Senate border talks, particularly as Johnson comes close to squashing the entire effort outright. Yet the tight margins in the House mean that while conservative resistance to the border deal may be louder than progressive opposition, both could prove just as perilous to a border deal.

Top Senate Democrats, meanwhile, are offering their own subtle advice to the left: Be prepared to give ground.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), his party’s lead negotiator on the border deal, predicted that “there are certainly going to be some Republicans who vote against this, and there are going to be some Democrats [who] vote against this.”

“I hope to be able to make the case that there are a lot of really important reforms to Democrats … but yes, I think this this was always going to be a true compromise,” he added.

“Obviously, this will be an issue that’s going to be discussed” during the election season, said Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), who chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “That’s why it’s important for us to come to a bipartisan agreement, and certainly Democrats are willing to do that. But that means both sides gotta give.”

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