A top House Democrat blasted the Secretary of Homeland Security on Tuesday for refusing to testify before a House committee next week on issues dealing with illegal immigration, as Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS) said it was unacceptable for Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to say that she was unavailable for an oversight hearing about security along the southwest border. Nielsen's office said it was a scheduling issue, and not an effort to avoid lawmakers.
"As Secretary of Homeland Security, you should be prepared to testify on border security, the very issue that caused the recent shutdown, at any time," Thompson wrote in a letter released on his committee's website.
Democrats have pressed to hear from Nielsen for several weeks, especially after press reports showed that more illegal immigrant children were separated from their parents than had been previously acknowledged by the Trump Administration - and by Nielsen in her own past testimony.
"Your failure to engage Congress only makes averting another shutdown more difficult," Thompson wrote.
In a written statement sent to reporters on Wednesday morning, Nielsen's office disputed the story put out by Thompson, characterizing the lack of a hearing date as a timing matter, not a question of whether the Secretary would appear before the House Homeland Security Committee.
"We are disappointed in Chairman Thompson’s misleading letter," said Tyler Q. Houlton, the Press Secretary for DHS. "To be clear, the Secretary did not ‘refuse’ the Chairman’s invitation to testify. In fact, she accepted the invitation and proposed alternative dates in February, as the proposed date of February 6 was unworkable."
In his statement, Houlton said the shutdown had delayed efforts to set a hearing date, "because such functions were legally restricted during the shutdown."
“Unfortunately, instead of calling the Department or reaching out to the Secretary to identify a mutually workable alternative date, the Chairman chose to release a letter falsely claiming the Secretary was refusing to testify," Houlton added, who labeled Thompson's charge, 'unproductive and unhelpful.'
It was not the first time that Democrats have encountered difficulties from Cabinet members of the Trump Administration since taking charge of the House of Representatives earlier this month.
Just last week, Secretary of Treasury Steven Mnuchin refused to testify before the House Ways and Means Committee about the shutdown's impact on the workings of the Internal Revenue Service.
In a letter, Mnuchin said he would not testify before the House Ways and Means Committee until "the President's Budget has been released."
On Tuesday, White House officials said that because of the 35 day partial shutdown, that budget submission would not be released until mid-March, instead of the usual deadline of the first Monday in February.
Earlier this month, HHS Secretary Alex Azar refused to testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which wanted answers about how HHS had handled care for separated illegal immigrant children.
Last week, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross agreed to appear before a House panel to answer questions about why the Trump Administration tried to add a citizenship question to the Census - but that hearing won't take place until March 14.
Democrats have also set a February 8 hearing with Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker; the Senate Judiciary Committee is set to vote on the nomination of William Barr to be Attorney General on February 7.