DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen will face aggressive, perhaps even angry, questioning from Democrats about the declaration of a National Emergency at the border and the administration’s family separation policy when she this week becomes one of the first cabinet secretaries to testify since the opposition party took control of committee gavels in the House.
Observers say the lack of any rapport or back-channel communications between Nielsen and Democrats on the House Homeland Security Committee, especially Chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), will make a tough crowd even tougher.
The high-stakes hearing will tackle border security policy — the issue in DHS’ broad portfolio that sparks the most contentious partisan argy-bargy. And it comes in the wake of the president’s controversial declaration of a national emergency to fund his border wall, which Congress is likely to vote to block — setting up a veto showdown.
The House voted largely along party lines to overturn the declaration last week — and over the weekend it became clear there were enough Republican defectors in the Senate to assure the challenge of victory in the upper chamber, too.
But that prospect will do little to temper Democrats’ ire, or buffer Nielsen from vigorous cross-examination about the factual basis for President Trump’s justification for the national emergency at the border.
According to majority committee staff and other observers, the secretary has little to no personal rapport with Thompson — and the Mississippi congressman is clearly approaching Wednesday’s hearing with a prosecutorial mindset.
Nielsen should come the hearing “ready to defend the Administration’s border security actions and its plans to improve its border security agenda,” he said in a statement.
The exchanges between Nielsen and Thompson are likely to be stiffly polite at best, and the secretary may even face questions about the credibility of her previous testimony to the committee.
Neither side appears to have done much behind the scenes to alleviate tensions arising from deeply-felt Democratic anger about the Trump Administration’s zero-tolerance policy at the border and the president’s broader hostility towards undocumented immigrants.
Thompson made the depth of his own feelings about the administration’s border policy clear last week during remarks at the German Marshall Fund, when describing a recent congressional visit to El Paso.
“As a black American whose ancestors were brought over here in the belly of a ship — and not because they wanted to come here … — I’m personally offended by what I saw at the border. Because even if people are here [illegally] they need to be afforded certain basic rights when they get here,” he said.
In such situations, the onus is on the executive branch to reach out, according to Bush-era GOP senior DHS official James Norton.
It’s the department that needs things — policy, money — from the Hill, not the other way around, he pointed out. “It may be unfair, but that’s the nature of the business,” said Norton, who handled congressional relations for part of his career at DHS.
For her part, Nielsen’s defense of the declaration came in comments on the DHS budget compromise that ended the 35 day government shutdown in January. The spending bill “doesn’t provide everything we need, and it gets nowhere close to completely solving the serious humanitarian and security crisis at our southern border,” she said. “I applaud the President’s decision to declare a national emergency. This is a crisis — pure and simple — and we need to respond accordingly. We cannot standby as our border security is further compromised and our immigration laws are exploited. Now is the time to act and to uphold our fundamental responsibility to our citizens and our nation to safeguard U.S. territory.”
Other Republicans charge that many Democrats are interested only in grandstanding: Using the secretary’s testimony as a stage on which to demonstrate the intensity of their opposition to President Trump and his border policy — to curry favor with what Republicans see as an increasingly extremist Democratic base.
Nielsen has met privately with Thompson only twice, according to a committee staffer — and one of those meetings was last week after the chairman had publicly threatened to subpoena her in a dispute about testimony dates. In January, he told politico that he’d had no contact with her “since August or September last year.”
“The administration didn’t make communication with the minority a priority,” in the last Congress, the committee staffer told HS Today.
But by not developing cordial relationships with Democrats when they were in the minority, Nielsen may have missed the chance to establish relationships that could have helped her weather this week’s storm, said Norton.
“It was clear [during the last Congress] that there wasn’t much behind the scenes communication,” he said. Officials have multiple channels in addition to in-person meetings to reach committee members: Briefings, phone calls and letters, for instance. “That’s all been neglected,” said Norton. “That kind of lack of communication is going to catch up with you.”
Nielsen, he said, “is going to run straight into — ironically — a political wall on Capitol Hill.”
DHS has something of a troubled history with Congress — driven in large part by the fact that over 80 different committees and subcommittees have jurisdiction over some part of its broad portfolio of responsibilities. Past administrations of both parties have repeatedly complained about the enormous burden of trying to be responsive to so many congressional overseers.
But this might actually provide the embattled secretary with an opportunity. “If she agrees to be more communicative and responsive, that will be something the members want to see,” said the committee staffer.
Democrats and Nielsen are never going to see eye to eye on border issues, but there are many other elements of the department’s responsibilities — such as cybersecurity, disaster response or protecting aviation and other transport networks — where there’s a real prospect of bipartisan cooperation.
Thompson, for instance, while ranking member, supported the House bill that eventually transformed the department’s cyber shop into a national agency — one of Nielsen’s key priorities last year.
A key interlocutor in any bipartisan progress might be the committee’s new ranking member, GOP Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) Like Thompson, he has served on the committee since it was established more than a decade ago and observers see him as thoughtful and as a potential bridge builder, according to Norton.