The House of Representatives recently gifted President Donald Trump a series of easy political victories–including billions of dollars in additional funding for the construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. The bill also provides Trump carte blanche authority to divert funds from other military projects to complete the wall as the White House sees fit–a stunning reversal of presidential fortune from prior budget battles under House Republican leadership when those same border wall funding requests were consistently denied.
But the Democratic Party’s collective “cave” to Trump on border wall funding appears to have had at least one ulterior motive.
According to David Dayen at The American Prospect, Pelosi’s efforts were keyed toward protecting a conservative Democratic Party incumbent facing a spirited primary challenge from the left.
Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) has long been reviled by the Democratic Party’s online activists and progressive thought leaders after redistricting pitted him against his former friend and Texas’ 28th Congressional District then-representative Ciro Rodriguez in 2004. Cuellar narrowly won his own primary challenge against Rodriguez and defeated the former congressman again in 2006.
Since then, Cuellar has distinguished himself by holding one of the most consistently conservative voting records of any Democrat in Congress. According to politics and sports analysis website FiveThirtyEight, he’s voted with Trump more often than any other Democrat–at one point aligning with the 45th president’s priorities 75 percent of the time.
H.R. 1158 was passed by 280-138 votes on the strength of the centrist New Democrat Coalition of corporate-friendly Democrats.
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus savaged the bill in a statement:
[The] Homeland Security minibus maintains high numbers of ICE detention beds and does not include restrictions to stop the Administration from robbing accounts across the government to fund its anti-immigrant agenda, which has denied the human dignity to thousands of families and resulted in rapes, kidnapping, mass suffering, and even death at our border. Moreover, it allows this Administration to continue ramping up confiscation of American private property in order to build President Trump’s border wall.
“This bill was written and negotiated under a House Democratic majority and, instead of using this opportunity to rein in DHS, it keeps many of the same spending levels and transfer flexibilities authored by Republicans and in line with President Trump’s priorities,” the statement continued. “We are disappointed about this missed opportunity and the fact that a majority of our Homeland Security priorities were not included in this spending deal.”
Particularly egregious to opponents of the funding bill were the lack of restrictions that could have stopped Trump from raiding other segments of the military budget in order to divert unlimited funds for the border wall. The Hispanic Caucus had insisted upon explicit language that would have prohibited such diversions in order to support the bill. In a spirit of bi-partisan comity, however, Pelosi and the Democratic establishment ignored Hispanic lawmakers and progressives in order to attract GOP support for the legislation.
“We did not come to this decision lightly,” the Hispanic Caucus added. “We have a responsibility to our constituents and Latinos across this country to defend our communities from the President’s chaotic, wasteful and racist policies. Without transferability restrictions, this spending bill is effectively a blank check that will allow the Administration to continue redirecting billions from real national security priorities to instead inflict cruelty and militarize our border.”
The funding bill also gives the Trump administration an opportunity to build various structures along the U.S.-Mexico border–which, Dayen notes, freed the White House “from constraints on the type of border barrier they can build that had been in force since 2017.”
New language in the Democrat-authored funding bill allows: “operationally effective adaptations of such designs that help mitigate community or environmental impacts of barrier system construction, including adaptations based on consultation with jurisdictions within which barrier system will be constructed.”
One new structure stands out in particular: a long-clamored-for “riverwalk” along the Rio Grande river. Cuellar and Laredo’s business community have repeatedly sought federal funding for the mega-project for over a decade. The new funding bill provides exactly that funding–due to Cuellar’s personal intervention and role drafting the legislation. Per that report:
Cuellar ultimately voted against the bill, saying that he couldn’t support “an ineffective border wall” that would harm “taxpayers, wildlife, the environment, and my community.” But at the same time, Cuellar, vice chair of the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee that negotiated this part of the bill, touted the inclusion of language he wrote protecting certain wildlife refuges and historical landmarks in South Texas from any border fencing, including the Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park and the National Butterfly Center.
Laredo officials restarted the riverwalk project earlier this year. And, Dayen notes, city leaders “reimagined it for the Trump era by emphasizing its role as a border solution; the 15-foot-high bulkhead would present a barrier to border crossers, while a path would be dug out for Border Patrol to use.”
“[Cuellar] calls himself a Laredo boy, but he’s not protecting our people, especially the poorest people,” Maxine Rebeles, a No Border Wall activist and teacher in Laredo who also opposes the riverwalk redesign told the Prospect. “He knows too many people don’t care about politics. He basically threw us under the bus.”
But pork barrel politics dictate that such efforts are a team sport.
Cuellar appears to have locked down a key prize for his constituents and an arrow in his quiver against Justice Democrats-backed challenger Jessica Cisneros–along with the ability to claim that he ultimately voted against the bill that will likely fully fund the wall despised by those same constituents.
And for that, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who’s known about the riverwalk project since 2007, deserves a great deal of the credit.
[image via J. Scott Applewhite – Pool/Getty Images]
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