WITHOUT pausing once to sit down or use the bathroom Nancy Pelosi spoke for more than eight hours on February 7th to protest Congress’s failure to protect young immigrants threatened with deportation. Between 10am and 6.10pm, the 77-year-old Democratic leader in the House of Representatives stood in 4-inch heels, reading heart-wrenching letters from high-achieving young immigrants and quoting from the Bible and Pope Francis. When she finally stopped, she turned around to high-five her cheering colleagues before sitting down. Although she claimed during her address that it was not her intention to break any record, this may have been the longest speech ever made on the House floor.
The ostensible reason for Mrs Pelosi’s protest was to demand that Paul Ryan, the House Speaker, allow a vote on a legislative fix for DACA (the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals programme). Introduced by Barack Obama it shielded from deportation about 800,000 undocumented immigrants brought to America as children and was cancelled by President Donald Trump last September. In January, Democrats agreed a measure to fund the federal government only after extracting a promise from Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, that he would introduce a vote on legislation to protect DACA recipients known as “Dreamers”.
As Mrs Pelosi hogged the floor, the clock was ticking on a short-term bill to keep the government open; it expires at midnight on February 8th. Mrs Pelosi said her support for a new bill—a $300bn spending deal cut by Democrats and Republicans in the Senate—was dependent upon Mr Ryan promising a vote to save the Dreamers.
Mrs Pelosi’s speech was not technically a filibuster, because those were banned in the House in the 19th century. It was instead an unusual use of her prerogative, as a leader, to speak for longer than most members are allowed. In 1909 James Beauchamp “Champ” Clark of Missouri, House Speaker, held the floor for five hours and 15 minutes to speak against a tariff overhaul. In 2009 John Boehner, then Republican leader, caused a stir when his “fila-Boehner” against a climate change bill lasted for more than an hour. That bill, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, passed in the House but failed in the Senate.
What will Mrs Pelosi’s record-breaking effort achieve? Mr Ryan has indicated that he is not open to a House debate on immigration and that he will only push a bill that Mr Trump supports. Many Democrats say that extracting a promise on this is of little use anyway; Mr McConnell has still not held the vote he promised.
But Mrs Pelosi had another objective, to show progressive Democrats that she is with them. Having originally refused to agree to any spending deal until there was a legislative fix for DACA, Mrs Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader in the Senate, enraged the Democrats’ progressive caucuses when they abandoned that strategy in January. The new bipartisan spending bill will further divide Democrats: though it makes no mention of immigration it would mean billions of dollars more in domestic spending on programmes loved by Democrats.
So does Mrs Pelosi want the bill to pass? On February 8th, as the House prepared to vote on the bill, she said she would not push Democrats to vote against it. That is not surprising. If she did, and a shutdown ensued, her party might be blamed. But it does make it more likely that Democrats will vote for the bill and it will pass. It suggests too that Mrs Pelosi’s eyes are fixed more tightly on mid-terms in November than on immigration.
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