O’Rourke to Democrats: Don’t shut down the government like Ted Cruz

Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-Texas, is trying to unseat Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018.
Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-Texas, is trying to unseat Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018. AP

Ted Cruz’s Democratic challenger isn't buying his party’s strategy for helping the 800,000 people living in the country under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

Democratic leaders want a solution for DACA recipients in the spending bill Congress will be writing over the next two weeks – and they’re threatening to withhold votes on that proposal to get it.

Doing so could lead to a partial government shutdown, if the two parties can’t reach an agreement on how to protect DACA recipients from deportation when President Donald Trump plans to end the program this spring.

Cruz used a similar strategy himself four years ago, when he helped engineer a shutdown in a dispute over health care policy.

Now Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, who's seeking Cruz's Senate seat next year, says Democrats risk becoming just like the man he hopes to unseat — stubborn and unable to negotiate on an issue that has an outsized impact to Texas.

O’Rourke represents the border town of El Paso, and has long been a champion of Texas-Mexico relations.

He’s pushing his party to consider some of the GOP’s proposals for increased border security, if it means keeping the government open past December 22, when the current funding authority expires, and finding a solution for DACA recipients.

“I can’t speak for Democrats, I can just speak for myself, and I can’t be a part of shutting down the government,” O’Rourke said in an interview with the Star-Telegram.

O’Rourke called the 2013 shutdown Cruz helped orchestrate “terrible” for El Paso and Texas, adding that it “cost the country billions of dollars.”

Cruz led a band of conservatives who shut down the government for 16 days in October that year, as part of an attempt to defund Obamacare. About 800,000 government employees were furloughed in the process.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D- Calif., reiterated the stakes Thursday, saying, “we will not leave here without a DACA fix” before the year’s end.

O'Rourke is waging a longshot bid to unseat Cruz. The senator, who sought the Republican presidential nomination last year, could face his own political struggle on DACA.

Cruz staked out hard-right immigration stances during that race, earning him the support of immigration control groups who endorsed him over Trump.

Now he's running for reelection in a state with the second largest population of DACA recipients, behind California. More than 120,000 DACA recipients live in Texas, and 7,700 live in Tarrant County.

Cruz told the Star-Telegram this week that any DACA deal must address chain migration, which prioritizes the family of immigrants already here over others seeking citizenship.

“Anything that provides amnesty and a pathway to citizenship and potentially chain migration for millions of people here illegally would be a mistake,” said Cruz.

Those standards are in line with the White House’s demands, which call for a DACA fix to include and end to chain migration, the construction of a border wall and substantially stronger immigration enforcement.

Texas’s senior senator, John Cornyn, unveiled Senate Republicans’ proposal for DACA this week. That plans offers a three-year transitional period for DACA recipients to remain in the country, paired with a host of increased border security measures and immigration law changes.

That package is designed to give Republicans room for negotiation with Senate Democrats, who criticized it immediately. They want a pathway to legal status for DACA recipients, and are firmly against some aspects of the immigration reform measures, such as a crackdown on sanctuary cities.

Cornyn said he personally supports a “long-term and permanent” solution for DACA recipients, but must strike a deal that will keep enough Senate Republicans on board. He’s negotiating with Senate Democrats now to find a solution before the end of the year.

Immigration reduction advocates, who could play a big role if Cruz ran for president again, say they’re watching the senator’s vote on whatever deal leaders reach.

“[Cruz] has been an ally on the issue in the past, but it’s been interesting ever since he didn’t win the presidential nomination,” said Chris Chmielenski, director of content and activism for the immigration reduction group NumbersUSA, which endorsed Cruz for the GOP nomination.

“He’s sort of been in this gray area, and we’re not exactly sure where he is,” said Chmielenski.

O’Rourke also risks alienating his base if he goes too far siding with Republicans.

Immigration watchdog groups want Democrats to insist DACA relief be part of the spending bill.

“All issues besides border security and [a DACA fix] should be a part of a more comprehensive negotiation for a round two of legislation,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of the immigrants’ rights group America’s Voice Education Fund. He said O’Rourke has been an ally in the past.

O’Rourke joined the majority of House Democrats Thursday night in voting against a proposal to temporarily fund the government for another two weeks, while negotiations continue.

He’s laid out his own set of standards for what he’ll accept from Republicans in exchange for a DACA fix.

“My non-negotiables are anything that walls up or militarizes or compromises border communities,” O’Rourke said.

Cornyn’s plan calls for the construction of a wall in some places, but uses technology to monitor the border in others.

O’Rourke, who knows the border well, said communities there are firmly against the construction of a wall. But, he defended Cornyn as a good-faith negotiator, and said he’d work with Republicans on a solution.

“There’s a really good chance, beyond threats and brinksmanship, there is a real consensus that is developing across partisan lines to do the right thing here,” he said.

Andrea Drusch: 202-383-6056, @AndreaDrusch