WASHINGTON – House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi commandeered the House floor Wednesday for a day-into-night marathon plea to Republicans for action on immigration, casting the fate of young undocumented immigrants in moral terms.
The 77-year-old Pelosi stood for more than eight hours, reading multiple personal stories from “dreamers” and citing Bible passages. Her speech ranked as the longest given by a member of the House of Representatives in at least a century, possibly ever, focusing on an issue that has vexed Democrats for months.
The speech underscored that Democrats lack the leverage they insisted they would have in spending showdowns with Republicans. Pelosi and others repeatedly promised immigration activists and the party base they would force a vote sparing undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children from deportation after President Trump rescinded the program in September.
Instead, Democrats’ ineffectiveness has angered those same activists and the voters critical in a midterm election year with control of the House at stake.
Pelosi, who began talking shortly after 10 a.m., sought the same assurances Democrats have gotten in the Senate – the promise of debate on an immigration bill, the one glimmer of hope on an issue that seems to defy resolution.
“Why should we in the House be treated in such a humiliating way when the Republican Senate leader has given that opportunity in a bipartisan way to his membership? What’s wrong? There’s something wrong with this picture,” Pelosi said.
Aides to House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said that he intends to allow debate on immigration legislation that is supported by Trump. But when the debate might happen – and what kind of bill Trump can support – is still unclear.
Taking advantage of a rule that allows only top party leaders the special right to speak as long as they want, Pelosi had called aides at 7:45 a.m. on her drive to work Wednesday and instructed them to send out an all-member request for stories from dreamers and select Bible verses. By the afternoon, Democrats had submitted hundreds of stories that staffers printed out and rushed to the floor.
Pelosi stood from the podium in four-inch heels and spoke and spoke and spoke.
“I have no intention of yielding back,” she said at 3:41 p.m. when she inquired about the House schedule.
At one point, she lamented that she didn’t have a rosary, so Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., gave her one. Pelosi read passages from the Gospel of Matthew found for her by Rep. Juan Vargas, D-Calif., a former Jesuit missionary.
Pelosi used the speech to say she would lead opposition to a broad two-year budget agreement, negotiated with Republicans by her and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., that includes several Democratic priorities but does not address the legal status of people protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which is set to expire next month. The fate of people protected by the program has prolonged the spending debate for several months.
Shortly after 6 p.m., Pelosi finished her remarks that had been delivered entirely standing, as she was forbidden from sitting down or taking a restroom break. Her Democratic colleagues applauded.
Her speech came as her caucus began three days of closed-door meetings to craft a 2018 agenda that can win wider appeal in November’s elections.
Former vice president Joe Biden warned in a speech to House Democrats that the party is engaged in a “false debate” over the fight between defending cultural diversity and fighting for working-class job and wage growth. Elsewhere on Capitol Hill, dozens of dreamers waged sit-ins and protests in congressional office buildings, courting arrest. And moderate Democratic senators seeking reelection in states Trump won in 2016 urged Pelosi to support an impending budget agreement despite concerns with immigration policy.
The contrasts highlighted the Democrats’ 2018 dilemma: how to keep promises to a base that feels under attack from Trump and Republicans while pivoting to an economic message that can help them win back Congress. Trump’s party, confident that January’s brief shutdown revealed the Democrats’ divisions, is eager to run on a growing economy while accusing opponents of putting “illegal immigrants above law-abiding citizens,” as the Republican National Committee said this week.
Some moderate Democratic senators found fault with Pelosi’s strategy. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said he would back the budget compromise if the disaster relief funds include provisions to help his state recover from last year’s wildfires.
“There’s some important programs that need to be funded, too,” Tester said. “Would I want it to be all comprehensive? Absolutely. But it’s not going to be all comprehensive. So, take what you can get.”
Sen. Robert Casey Jr., D-Pa., said approving the compromise deal now will open the path for a wide-open debate next week in the Senate on the DACA program and other immigration proposals – what Democrats should consider a political victory.
“We have a chance to spend a lot of floor time on it, and that’s an opportunity we haven’t had in five years,” Casey said, referencing the last immigration debate in 2013.
Biden, whose political persona has been built around the “Middle Class Joe” moniker, devoted most of his remarks to warning Democrats about the effect of Trump’s attacks on cultural and political institutions.
“Our job, to me, seems pretty clear: We have to stand up for and protect the core values of this nation. They’ve never been under such direct assault,” he said.
“Go out and holler,” he added. “You’re going to win back the House.”
Democrats need to gain at least 24 seats to take control of the House, and nonpartisan forecasters and recent fundraising reports show that they are set to exceed that figure.
But recent polls show growing optimism among voters about a tax-cut bill that recently passed. A new Quinnipiac University poll, released Wednesday, found support for the tax cuts rising from 32 percent in January to 39 percent today, while Trump’s approval had climbed from 36 to 40 percent.
But some Democrats now argue that the party should define and sell its own tax plan in a way that can win voters who are already optimistic about the economy.
“We’ve got to get onto an economic message that’s going to resonate across the board,” said Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, who challenged Pelosi for her leadership position in late 2016.
Ryan said that Democrats should acknowledge that “some people are going to get a little bump” from the Trump tax cut but that under a Democratic plan, “they’d be getting hundreds and hundreds more than under the Republican plan, and we would have been able to pay for it, by asking the wealthy and corporations to pay more.”
For the record, the House Office of the Historian confirmed that Pelosi had delivered the longest continuous speech in the chamber’s history, dating to at least 1909, when then-Rep. Champ Clark, D-Mo., delivered five hours and 15 minutes of remarks against a proposed tariff overhaul.
But Clark’s speech was repeatedly interrupted by his colleagues; Pelosi held the floor the entire time with no interruption – a feat not accomplished by senators in recent years who delivered filibuster-style remarks, each of whom were able to yield to colleagues.