Ed Markey and Joe Kennedy both voted for bills including bed quotas. Here’s why Markey is the one taking heat for it.

"The reason House Democrats had to swallow the bed quota in funding bills that followed was because Republicans (and you) voted to protect it."

FILE - In this Oct. 1, 2019, file photo, U.S. Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., left, and U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy III, D-Mass., right, listen during an immigration roundtable discussion in Boston. With the start of the new year, Democratic political rivals Markey and Kennedy are ramping up their campaigns with Markey's Senate seat hanging in the balance. (AP Photo/Steven Senne, File)
Sen. Ed Markey and Rep. Joe Kennedy III during an immigration roundtable discussion last year in Boston. –Steven Senne / AP

Rep. Joe Kennedy III and Sen. Ed Markey got into a contentious back-and-forth Thursday, after the Massachusetts congressman’s primary campaign ripped the incumbent senator for breaking with most Democrats in a 2013 vote in support of a controversial “bed quota” for immigrant detainees.

But wait, Markey’s campaign responded, didn’t Kennedy also vote for legislation that included the exact same quota?

The answer is yes. However, the Kennedy campaign stresses that the context and circumstances around his vote were meaningfully different.

First, it might be easiest to start from the beginning.

‘It is very disturbing’

With just 40 days left in the blockbuster Senate primary race, Kennedy’s campaign — which has worked to dent Markey’s progressive bonafides — organized a press conference Thursday morning during which several Democratic members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus harshly criticized Markey’s vote in 2013 to uphold and increase an Immigration and Customs Enforcement policy known as the “detention bed mandate.”

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The little-known mandate, as NPR reported at the time, says the federal government must fill a minimum of 34,000 detention center beds each day with people caught by the Border Patrol, ICE, and other law enforcement agencies. The policy dates back to 2009 and is intended to compel ICE to enforce laws against illegal immigration, according to supporters. But critics say it arbitrarily drives up the number of detainees at both a financial and human cost, putting thousands of undocumented immigrants without any criminal record behind bars for months on end.

In early June of 2013, a Republican-written Homeland Security budget bill included the 34,000-bed mandate, an increase of around 2,000 at the time. President Barack Obama threatened to veto the bill, specifically citing — among other things — the proposed increase.

And yet Markey, who was still a congressman at the time (and in the final weeks of his own Senate special election race to replace Sen. John Kerry), was one of only 25 Democrats — and the only member of the Massachusetts congressional delegation — to vote in favor of the legislation. He also did not cast a vote on a failed Democrat-backed amendment at the time to eliminate the quota.

The larger Homeland Security budget ultimately passed by a 245-to-182 vote. Even if Democrats had unanimously opposed the bill, it still had enough Republican votes to pass.

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Still, supporters of Kennedy — who was one of 172 Democrats who voted against the 2013 bill — suggested Thursday that Markey compromised his values to help his chances in the 2013 special election (the Malden Democrat went on to defeat his Republican opponent by 10 percentage points).

“Every progressive person, everyone in his delegation in Massachusetts, voted against this bill,” Rep. Juan Vargas, a California Democrat, said. “He was the only progressive member of Congress to vote for it because he had a tough election. We were betrayed. The community was betrayed.”

Rep. Linda Sanchez, another California Democrat, also accused Markey of voting to “line the pockets of for-profit prison operators” for “political gain.” Texas Rep. Filemon Vela was even harsher.

“We represent hundreds of thousands of DREAMers amongst us and when we see people who claim to be progressives vote against our community, the way that Ed Markey did in this particular occasion, it is very disturbing,” Vela said in a statement.

“These are the kinds of votes that Steve King in Iowa takes,” he continued, referring to the shunned Republican congressman with a history of racist comments. “Somebody who’s running as a progressive voting the way that Steve King does? That should tell you something.”

Swing and a miss?

Markey’s campaign noted that, in reality, he’s no Steve King.

As a senator, Markey has consistently fought against the hardline immigration policies of President Donald Trump — especially when it comes to detaining and deporting immigrants who don’t pose a threat to public safety. He has also repeatedly sponsored legislation to promote alternatives to detention programs.

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Additionally, the Markey campaign accused Kennedy of hypocrisy, noting that the Newton Democrat (as well as Vargas, Sanchez, and Vela) voted for legislation with “identical language” as the Homeland Security budget.

“It’s opening night of the new baseball season, and Congressman Kennedy’s negative campaign has swung and missed–again,” Markey campaign manager John Walsh said in a statement. “It’s genuinely sad that the Kennedy campaign did not do its basic research. This is undoubtedly a desperate move as Kennedy’s wide margin in initial polling has evaporated.”

Kennedy’s campaign says the comparison between the two votes isn’t fair.

Since the Homeland Security budget ultimately passed, it went onto become part of a larger government funding bill, which came up for a vote in January 2014 amid threats of another government shutdown.

Even though it contained the same controversial bed quota, the bill passed overwhelmingly in Congress. All but three House Democrats voted for the omnibus spending bill, which was signed into law by Obama.

Kennedy’s team says the difference should be telling. Ramon Soto, the campaign’s director of Latinx outreach, accused Markey of standing with Republicans (even though he has one of the lowest bipartisanship scores of any senator dating back to 1993).

“Meanwhile every other member of the Massachusetts Congressional Delegation stood together, with President Obama, with DREAMers, with immigrants across the country, to try and fight back against the quota,” Soto said in a statement.

“The Markey Campaign has deliberately mischaracterized Kennedy’s vote to end the threat of a federal shutdown in order to try and salvage a news story that reflects a devastating lack of empathy for ICE detainees by Senator Markey,” he continued. “Kennedy voted to eliminate the bed mandate entirely and, when that amendment failed, he voted against the larger bill. Ed Markey went against President Obama and Democratic Leadership to stand with ICE and vote — intentionally — for the bed quota.”

In a tweet Thursday afternoon, Sanchez also shot back at the Markey campaign’s response.

“The reason House Democrats had to swallow the bed quota in funding bills that followed was because Republicans (and you) voted to protect it, while the rest of us were fighting to tear it down,” she wrote.

‘If you’re up 14 points, you’re not doing this’

Markey’s campaign hasn’t said why he supported the Homeland Security budget in 2013, but argues the fact that Kennedy’s campaign went back to dig up the old vote is perhaps even more telling, after early polls suggested the younger, more well-known candidate with a double-digit lead in the race.

“People who get to this point are not people with the status of the race,” Walsh told Boston.com in an interview. “In other words, if you’re up 14 points, you’re not doing this.”

Walsh minimized the 2013 vote as a single piece of an appropriations process consisting of “hundreds of votes” and said the Kennedy campaign’s suggestion “that Ed Markey is bad for immigration” was “deliberately deceptive” and “unprofessionally executed.” The new attack comes after Kennedy has repeatedly highlighted Markey’s old votes in support of the 1994 crime bill, NAFTA, and the Iraq War.

“When you’ve exhausted all the big hits, now you start looking for the minutiae of one vote with one piece of language,” Walsh said. “This is old school hit pieces that are usually reserved for direct mail, because then there’s no response.”

Nevertheless, Kennedy’s campaign doubled down on the attack with a second press conference Friday afternoon in downtown Boston with local Latinx leaders who highlighted their support for his primary challenge and continued to blast Markey’s bed quota vote.

The campaign also rejected the notion that it was in any way desperate, noting the attacks have flown both ways for months.

“The Senator is running on his record,” Kennedy spokeswoman Emily Kaufman said in a statement Friday. “While he and his campaign may have the obscene privilege of writing off his choices as ‘just one vote,’ the Massachusetts families whose lives have been devastated by the Iraq War or the three-strikes law or mass detention feel otherwise. This is the kind of old school, out-of-touch thinking that shows exactly why we need a new voice in the Senate.”

In a tweet Thursday night, Kennedy deferred to his Latinx colleagues in the House, noting that “[Markey] and I could go back and forth all day,” as their campaigns certainly illustrated.

“Instead, let’s take the words of the Latinx leaders who were there,” he wrote.

However, those words were apparently unconvincing to the over 130 Latinx elected officials and activists in Massachusetts who endorsed Markey’s campaign Friday, citing the senator’s support for the community, from immigration reform to his response to the Merrimack Valley gas explosions in 2018.

“He is a true ally and advocate for the Latinx and immigrant community in Massachusetts and beyond,” the group wrote in a letter released by Markey’s campaign. “He is by our side, understanding that bills with direct impact on our local communities mean just as much as those that propose broad national change.”

The letter did not mention the so-called bed quotas.

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