GOP Seeks to Force Confrontation With Democrats Over ICE

(Bloomberg) -- House Republicans sought to force a confrontation Wednesday with Democrats to exploit their divisions over calls from the party’s left wing to abolish the agency on the front lines of President Donald Trump’s immigration crackdown.

The GOP-led House voted 244-35 to pass a symbolic resolution to support Immigration and Customs Enforcement, with 133 Democrats voting "present" instead of for or against the measure. The vote came as many senior Democrats have tried to tamp down the “abolish ICE” sentiment that’s taken hold on the grassroots left but risks alienating voters in swing districts.

The controversy over the Trump administration’s since-abandoned policy of separating families who cross the U.S. border illegally has pushed immigration back toward the top of voter concerns as the election approaches.

The images of crying children and stories about split-up families handed Democrats a ready-made campaign issue as the November midterm elections approach. But it threatened to be overshadowed by the anti-ICE push that’s been embraced by some prominent Democrats, including potential contenders for the 2020 presidential nomination.

Meanwhile, Senate talks on bipartisan legislation designed to prevent immigrant families from being separated after crossing the U.S. border with Mexico have stalled. Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 GOP leader, said talks appear to be “dead” because Democrats are making demands that Republicans say would make the measure too broad.

The president has often used the abolish-ICE proposal to attack his opponents since it emerged as an issue.

"The Democrats want to abolish ICE, which will mean more crime in our country," he wrote Tuesday night on Twitter. "I want to give ICE a big cheer! Vote Republican in November."

Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, chairman of the Democratic Senate campaign committee, wouldn’t address the political implications of a push to eliminate the agency, but indicated disagreement with the idea as a matter of policy.

‘Humane Policy’

“The bottom line is that this administration has engaged in gross abuse by separating families from their kids," Van Hollen said. “At the same time it is important to have strong border security and before the administration took these actions and under the previous administration we were able to have both strong border security and a humane policy."

Kentucky Representative John Yarmuth, the ranking Democrat on the Budget Committee, said campaigning for the elimination of ICE is bad politics for Democrats.

"It’s also bad policy," he said. "We shouldn’t be talking about it."

House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, a Louisiana Republican, had been pushing to hold a vote on abolish-ICE legislation proposed by three House Democrats, Wisconsin’s Mark Pocan, Washington’s Pramila Jayapal and New York’s Adriano Espaillat.

Political Gamesmanship

The intent was to force Democrats to go on record. But House Speaker Paul Ryan quashed the idea after Democrats indicated they would vote against it, which he believed would be embarrassing to Republicans for having brought it up, according to two GOP aides. Scalise remains in favor of bringing up the Democratic legislation, one of the aides said.

Representative Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the second-ranking House Democrat, said late Tuesday that the Republican resolution in support of ICE is "a political ‘gotcha’ bill" that "plays out differently in different constituencies.”

While the idea of jettisoning ICE and replacing it with some other, unspecified agency had been circulating among progressive groups for months, it gained steam after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made it a prominent part of her campaign that resulted in a stunning upset victory in the New York primary over fourth-ranking House Democrat Joe Crowley.

Endorsements

It’s been endorsed by Democratic Senators Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Massachusetts’s Elizabeth Warren, both of whom may be contenders for the party’s presidential nomination two years from now.

Pocan, Jayapal and Espaillat, who introduced a measure to set up a commission that would recommend a replacement for Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, all represent solidly Democratic districts.

“I think everybody believes that ICE is not working and that it’s a rogue agency," Jayapal said in an interview. "Donald Trump would love to say this is about borders but there’s a separate agency that deals with borders. Somebody should let him know that, that’s called Customs and Border Protection."

Democratic leaders have tiptoed around the issue. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York has called to "reform ICE" and not abolish it, saying it "does some functions that are very much needed."

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California "believes that ICE has been on the wrong end of far too many inhumane and unconstitutional practices to be allowed to continue without an immediate and fundamental overhaul," said deputy chief of staff Drew Hammill.

Re-election Prospects

Sean McElwee, an activist based in New York who advocates abolishing ICE, said he’s received calls from Democratic operatives who are concerned it may harm the party.

“I’ve not put a gun to the head of any Democrat and said ‘abolish ICE.’ Those who’ve embraced it have felt it’s something that’s compatible with their re-election prospects," he said. "So I’m not worried. Democrats are going to take the House. Any Democratic pollster can come to me after the election, call me and tell me which specific race they lost because of abolish ICE and I’ll hear them out."

Democratic lawmakers who are facing competitive re-election races, especially in places where Trump won in 2016, oppose the effort, including Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown. “He believes we need to focus on reuniting families who were separated and fixing our broken immigration system," said spokeswoman Jennifer Donohue.

Other Democrats are sympathetic to the cause of scaling back ICE but aren’t ready to ax the agency that was created in 2003 with the responsibility of finding and deporting undocumented people.

"We need to take a look at it and if it needs to be restructured then it needs to be restructured," said Senator Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, who doesn’t face re-election until 2022. “This administration has taken resources away from homeland security investigations and put them toward an unnecessary and inhumane deportation force."

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.