‘False choice:’ Kamala Harris among Democrats voting against deal to keep government open

California Sen. Kamala Harris and three other Senate Democrats with presidential ambitions voted against a spending deal Thursday that would prevent another federal government shutdown.

They represented four of the only five Democratic votes against the deal. Declared presidential candidates Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts also voted against the plan.

Harris told McClatchy after the vote that it was a “false choice” — a recurring talking point in her nascent presidential campaign — to pick between a shutdown and the deal that a bipartisan group of House and Senate negotiators hammered out over the past two weeks to fund the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies through October 2019.

“I want to keep the government open,” Harris said. “I respect the process and I applaud my colleagues who worked very hard on it.” But ultimately she said it wasn’t a good deal, citing, in particular, high levels funding for immigrant detention beds.

Democratic leaders faced pressure to reject the deal from liberal activists, particularly immigrant advocates, who represent a key segment of the party’s presidential primary electorate.

The group United We Dream, which represents undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children issued a statement Thursday “unapologetically” urging members of Congress to vote no on the spending bill. It which provides nearly $50 billion for the Department of Homeland Security, including increases for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agencies

“This bill gives ICE and CBP billions more money to put our community behind bars,” the group complained.

The bill easily passed the Senate Thursday afternoon, by a vote of 83 to 16. It it is expected to pass the House Thursday evening.

That cushion allowed Harris and her fellow 2020 contenders to side with the party base without risking another partial government shutdown.

She said she also was disappointed that the bill did not extend the Violence Against Women Act, a law that administers programs to benefit victims of domestic violence. It expires this week. Democrats had hoped to reauthorize the law’s programs as part of the spending deal.

“And then why didn’t we put VAWA in?” Harris asked.

“I just think there was a lot of gamesmanship that was being played,” Harris concluded.

Gillibrand had a similar rationale.

“There was no cap on the number of beds” that ICE uses to house immigrants in detention, GIllibrand told McClatchy. “And I believe President Trump will continue to divert necessary resources from FEMA and from Homeland Security and anti-terrorism to fund his locking up of immigrants into for-profit prisons.”

President Donald Trump oversaw a 35-day partial government shutdown that ended in late January. The shutdown centered on his demand that Congress allocate $5.7 billion to fund the wall on the Mexico border that he promised during his 2016 presidential campaign, and Democrats’ refusal to pay for it.

In the lastest spending talks, Democratic negotiators had pressed for a reduction in the number of detention beds — from 40,000 to 16,500 — but Republicans balked. Under Trump, the agency has ramped up the number of detentions and deportations, including of children and family units. Ultimately the final legislation did not include a cap, but it also included just a fraction of the $5 billion-plus in border wall funding the president had demanded.

That was enough to satisfy some 2020 Democratic contenders. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who launched her campaign over the weekend, voted in favor of the spending deal. Three other Democratic senators who are weighing presidential bids, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Jeff Merkeley of Oregon and Sherrod Brown of Ohio, also voted “aye.”

Emily Cadei works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, where she covers national politics and writes the Impact2020 newsletter. A native of Sacramento, she has spent more than a decade in D.C. reporting on U.S. elections, Congress and foreign affairs for publications including Newsweek, Congressional Quarterly and Roll Call.