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House Democrats Try To Vote On Top Priorities, Forced To Turn To Immigration


So that is the view from the campaign trail. Here in Washington, House Democrats are trying to regroup after weeks of public battles with President Trump and amongst themselves. The party had planned to spend the week voting on its top priorities, issues such as raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. But President Trump is forcing them again to talk about an issue he thinks he can win. That's immigration. NPR congressional reporter Kelsey Snell has more.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Ask most Democrats what their party's No. 1 issue was in 2018, and the response will be unflinching - health care. Their plan to keep the House and win the presidency next year is to build on that message with a promise of better jobs and higher wages. But that's been difficult if not impossible with President Trump and his allies owning the spotlight.

BEN RAY LUJAN: All of his folks continue to go to immigration reform any time that they're losing a political conversation with the American people.

SNELL: That's Assistant House Speaker Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico. Like a lot of Democrats, he's frustrated that Trump consistently shifts the conversation to something that divides them, like how to handle the crisis at the border. That's the root of the fight between progressive members like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The conflict dominated the headlines even before Trump's racist tweets attacking four House Democrats. And Pelosi says members cannot give into the chaos that Trump creates.


NANCY PELOSI: You have to give him credit. He's a great distracter.

SNELL: Last week Pelosi said Democrats are focused, and immigration is not overtaking health care as their main issue.


PELOSI: No, health care is our issue. Immigration is a value. It's not an issue for us.

SNELL: But Trump's tactic is successful because the divisions within the party are real. Progressive members, including some of the party's 2020 candidates, support aggressive changes like abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement and providing free health care for undocumented immigrants. And others like Veronica Escobar, whose district includes El Paso and runs along the border with Ciudad Juarez and Mexico, believe immigration is quickly overtaking every other issue, including health care.

VERONICA ESCOBAR: I think it's already happening in communities - especially in communities like mine. But Escobar's constituents are in many ways a world away from the farmers who vote for moderate Democrat Ron Kind in Wisconsin. Their immigration is far from unifying, and he'd rather keep the focus elsewhere.

RON KIND: Our farmers are getting killed by the president's trade war. The rural economy is the worst shape it's been in my lifetime.

SNELL: Both are members the party wants to defend in 2020, and their top priorities are simply not the same. Republicans know that, and they want to exploit it, and it's creating a serious challenge for party leaders like congresswoman Cheri Bustos, who heads the campaign arm for House Democrats.

CHERI BUSTOS: This is going to continue to happen between now and November of 2020, and it's a matter of just making sure that we not just have the discipline but we talk about the things that we've accomplished.

SNELL: But even that doesn't seem to be working. Democrats have taken action on a long list of campaign promises lately, like a minimum wage hike that's up for a vote this week. But it's mostly being ignored, and that is really frustrating for people like Florida Democrat Stephanie Murphy, who says Trump is using his platform to try to pigeonhole Democrats as a divided party dominated by the far-left.

STEPHANIE MURPHY: They are disingenuously painting all of the Democratic Party as socialists, anti-American and anti-Semitic.

SNELL: Democrats are hoping to retake control of the message with a vote to lower health care costs next week before they head home for the summer.

Kelsey Snell, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.