The liberal senators — and potential presidential contenders — who came out early to link a stopgap funding bill to immigration talks were embracing the fight as Congress lurched to a government shutdown on Friday.
The handful of liberals who vowed months ago to oppose a short-term spending bill until the GOP agreed to an immigration deal saw the vast majority of their Senate colleagues agree to dig in their heels on Friday night, even on the precipice of a shutdown. Those Senate Democrats weren’t taking credit or victory laps — but they were pleased to see their party’s notable cohesion.
Four who staked out their caucus’ earliest positions in favor of aiding the young undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers, Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and Cory Booker (D-N.J.), vowed to keep standing with the Democratic grassroots at a boisterous rally of activists outside the Capitol on Friday night.
As he left the rally, Booker described himself as “proud of my party” for sticking together against a month-long spending patch that the House passed on Thursday.
“I’m heartened to see the unity that this is no way to run a government,” he said in an interview.
Republicans have lambasted Democrats for pushing the government towards closure over protections for undocumented immigrants. But Booker readily acknowledged that not every Democratic senator who opposed the House-passed spending bill on Friday night, with a shutdown less than 90 minutes away, did so in defense of Dreamers.
“I think there are a lot of feelings that are going around that are keeping us all together,” he said, citing aid to Puerto Rico, at-risk pensions, and the opioid crisis as lingering but unaddressed Democratic priorities.
Booker also gave plenty of room to the five red-state Democrats who ultimately supported the spending bill on Friday night, noting that “a lot of our senators are in tough situations,” as did Merkley.
Republicans “were planning to roll right over the top of us,” Merkley said. “They thought they could bust us in half, and that’s not going to happen. So I’m encouraged.”
He’s not alone among the half-dozen Senate Democrats who are frequently mentioned on short lists to challenge President Donald Trump in 2020. They don’t have roles at the bipartisan negotiating table, but the handful of liberal senators who have forged close connections with the party’s base have found ways to play a prominent part in the shutdown fight.
“Any time you have people agreeing with you that’s a good thing,” one Senate Democratic aide said. “But I think it’s more than issue-specific — it’s that we still feel our strength is when we are united and can come into a situation with the most leverage.”
Harris views the immigration talks through a personal lens on behalf of the estimated 220,000 California-based Dreamers whom she represents and has pointedly refrained from twisting colleagues’ arms on the government funding vote, according to one source close to her.
She has done only a limited amount of TV appearances since her election, but her first appearance with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow last week was overwhelmingly dedicated to immigration.
And exactly one year ago Friday, Harris declared she could not support the nomination of John Kelly to lead the Department of Homeland Security unless he made a firmer commitment to safeguard Dreamers — raising a question that has persisted for some Democrats as Kelly takes over as White House chief of staff.
Sanders, for his part, has long pressed fellow Democrats to use the full power of their minority to press the GOP for a deal on helping Dreamers, one Senate source said. And while he has no desire to see a shutdown, he is also pleased to see the caucus stay as united as possible heading in the funding fight.
Sanders partnered with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who came out soon after Harris to vow a no vote on stopgap government funding without a deal to help Dreamers, on an op-ed last month that framed the immigration fight as a top priority, They also called for action on children’s health insurance, which Republicans funded for six years in the legislation, and community health centers.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), another leading liberal in the upper chamber who has embraced the Dreamers fight, on Friday reiterated her resistance to any stopgap spending bill without help for that undocumented population.
“The truth is that there is broad bipartisan agreement that the government should not shut down, the Children’s Health Insurance Program should be extended for 10 years and that Dreamers should be protected,” she said in a statement.