At 10:04 a.m. Washington time Wednesday, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi rose in the House chamber and began speaking. For more than eight hours, she stood in four-inch heels, reading the stories of people brought to the country illegally as children, known as “Dreamers.”
She described the children who were smuggled across the border in trash cans. She spoke of students who gave graduation speeches but weren’t able to get loans to follow their classmates to college. She recounted the anxiety of Dreamers who lost their work permits after President Trump last year announced the end of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
The San Francisco Democrat demanded House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) commit to a vote on fixing the legal status of Dreamers in exchange for her support for a two-year spending plan to keep the government open past Thursday night.
“Give us a chance to have a vote on the floor,” she said. “It must be bipartisan, transparent and unifying.”
Her unusual marathon speech came at a crucial time, months before voters across the country will decide whether they should return Democrats to power in the midterm elections, which in all likelihood would return Pelosi to the speakership.
Pelosi, who turns 78 next month, had never done anything like it. No one had. She blew past the record for the longest speech on the House floor — a five-hour and 15-minute speech about a tariff overhaul given in 1909 by a Missouri House member.
She read Bible passages. She read comments from young people asking for immigration action along with her own commentary as if she were having a direct conversation with the Dreamers: “You are so right, Josephine,” Pelosi said.
As she closed in on the fifth hour, Pelosi began wiping her nose and joked that she expected to get hungry or thirsty, not sniffly from the dust on the floor.
“I never thought I’d get the sniffles from the rug,” she said as she gestured to the Republican side. “But I can handle it if you can.” To hold the floor, she had to speak the entire time without breaks, though she did sip water.
Pelosi gave Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) a heads-up about her plans Wednesday morning and told her staff she wanted to speak, but said afterward that she didn’t expect to hold the floor for so long.
By hour two, Pelosi staffers were scrambling to gather more Dreamer stories from members and immigrant rights organizations. They think she read 300 stories, but they said it could have been more.
Pelosi was technically supposed to talk for one minute, but House leaders are granted leeway on how long their minute lasts. Past leaders have used that privilege to speak for 20 to 30 minutes. Former House Speaker John Boehner spoke about cap and trade for an hour in 2009.
Pelosi’s Democratic colleagues took notice. Fellow California Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) later called it “the most profound one minute in the history of this institution.” Some even skipped a planned speech from former Vice President Joe Biden to watch Pelosi.
They cycled in and out of the chamber. Some sat and listened for a while, or slipped sheets of paper with new Dreamer stories for Pelosi to read onto a growing pile. New York Rep. Nita M. Lowey put a wrapped hard candy onto the dais as Pelosi’s voice grew hoarse close to the third hour.
As the fourth hour began, Pelosi cleared her throat but forged ahead, rattling off statistics about how many Asian people qualified for DACA protections.
“Did you know that?” Pelosi asked, motioning toward the Republican side of the House chamber, where House Financial Services Chairman Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) and staffers sat waiting to close debate on the mortgage bill Hensarling had been discussing when she took the floor.
Moments later, Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.) leaned against a railing in the back of the chamber and listened for a few moments before he shrugged, shook his head and left the room.
Pelosi said in a statement Wednesday morning that she supports the bipartisan two-year package that she and other congressional leaders negotiated to avoid shutting down the government Thursday. But she said she wants an explicit promise from Ryan that he’ll bring a Dreamer bill to the floor soon, similar to the promise Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) made as part of a deal to end the brief government shutdown in January.
Pelosi’s opposition thrusts the immigration debate back into the budget negotiations, though even she said she isn’t sure how many Democrats will join her.
Shutting down the government comes with its own political risks, but Democrats’ failing to keep their promise to force a solution for the hundreds of thousands of Dreamers could make the 2018 midterms more difficult as the party works to regain control of the House.
Ryan needs Democrats’ help to pass the spending bill over objections from his conservative wing, including the Freedom Caucus, and Republicans are likely watching closely to see how many Democrats join Pelosi.
Though Ryan said this week he would put immigration legislation on the “floor that the president supports” and has indicated that he wants to consider an immigration bill in the next few months, he’s under pressure to stand by his promise not to consider immigration legislation unless it is supported by most House Republicans.
But Pelosi and Democrats are worried he won’t bring an immigration bill to the floor even if it passes the Senate, especially if it doesn’t include everything the president wants, like funding for a border wall.
If the spending package were to pass and be signed into law, it would address several of the remaining big-ticket issues for the year, leaving few other chances for Democrats to push for a legislative fix for the Dreamers. The DACA program was set to end March 5, but a court challenge has granted Dreamers a temporary reprieve.
“We have an opportunity now that is almost matchless” to get something done, Pelosi said soon after she began speaking. “I don’t know when we would have another opportunity that matches today.”
Near the sixth hour, Pelosi indicated she had gotten word the House would vote on some noncontroversial bills and recess as soon as she ceded the floor. She laughed and said she didn’t expect that to happen soon.
“I have plenty more stories to tell,” she said.
The chamber filled with Democrats as Pelosi began to close the speech at 6:11 p.m. local time, eight hours and seven minutes after she began.
A harried staffer rushed up to hand her a final Dreamer’s story as she tried to close her speech, prompting a Democrat to yell from a few rows back, “Read them all!”