Ideological divides between Democrats have been boiling into public view so frequently of late that speaker Nancy Pelosi firmly told House Democrats to keep their internal gripes behind closed doors, even as she herself fields backlash for seemingly dismissing her caucus’s progressive firebrands.
“You got a complaint? You come and talk to me about it. But do not tweet about our members and expect us to think that that is just okay,” Pelosi told lawmakers in a private meeting Tuesday, according to multiple sources in the room.
Pelosi’s comment was directed at progressive House lawmakers, many of whom vocally chided their leadership and moderate colleagues for accepting the Senate’s $4.59 billion supplemental border funding bill in late June, arguing the legislation did not go far enough to improve standards at detention centers. Only four Democrats voted against the House’s border funding legislation for not being progressive enough: Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY), Ilhan Omar (MN), Rashida Tlaib (MI), and Ayanna Pressley (MA), the so-called progressive “squad.” But there’s been clear sourness in the caucus since, and that has spilled over publicly.
“I am looking for a new pharmaceutical drug that builds spine,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), a co-chair of the Progressive Caucus, said after the border bill vote. Her co-chair Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI) tweeted that a bipartisan group of moderate Republicans and Democrats —dubbed the “Problem Solvers Caucus” — were becoming the “Child Abuse Caucus.”
Pelosi responded to their grievances in public, too. In an interview with the New York Times’ Maureen Dowd, she questioned the actual influence Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, Tlaib and Pressley, women who have commanded the attention of the Democratic Party with bold policy proposals and a viral internet presence, have in Congress.
“All these people have their public whatever and their Twitter world,” Pelosi told Dowd. “But they didn’t have any following. They’re four people and that’s how many votes they got.”
Ocasio-Cortez responded on Twitter: “That public ‘whatever’ is called public sentiment.” And progressive House leaders came to the group’s defense; Jayapal told reporters that Pelosi’s comments were concerning, especially as Congress looks to wrap up some major must-pass pieces of legislation before the August recess and end of the fiscal year — from a defense budget to keeping the government open.
All of this, of course, is about more than just some sparring in the media. There’s an undeniable divide within the Democratic Party: The new House majority was by and large won by Democrats in moderate districts, while the national Democratic Party, and some of the biggest 2020 names, have increasingly embraced progressive ideas, from Medicare-for-All to a Green New Deal and free college — all proposed by those same four House progressives.
Tensions among Democrats keep spilling over publicly
Publicly, House Democratic Leadership will tell you the party is united. In a meeting with reporters, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) repeatedly shot down the implication that progressives got “rolled” on the border funding bill, or that there would be any meaningful fights on the defense budget Democrats plan to pass this week. About the Twitter spats, Hoyer chalked it up to “strong feelings” about clearly emotional policy issues — like child detention at the border.
That said, Pelosi was firm with lawmakers Tuesday, according to a source in the room, explicitly acknowledging that tensions within the party have spilled over into the public sphere.
None of this is new. Progressive members of the House have repeatedly seen their leadership and moderate colleagues ignore their concerns. It’s not just a matter of Pelosi keeping a tight lid on allowing impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump; she’s also guided some of the House’s legislation to more moderate ground. HuffPost’s Matt Fuller has a good piece laying all this out, but a quick rundown:
The tone was set early. In January, the House passed a “pay as you go” rule, or PAYGO, which requires the government to offset every dollar spent expanding mandatory programs, like Medicare or food aid, with a budget cut or tax increase, which progressives explicitly said would harm proposals like Medicare-for-All. Again, when progressives took issue with the House’s budget caps proposal, saying it underfunded domestic programs and continued to bloat defense spending, leadership cancelled the official budget vote and instead stuck a provision into an unrelated bill that allowed the appropriations committees to begin writing spending bills without the top-line budget numbers. Most recently came the border supplemental package, on which progressive caucus members explicitly admit to getting “rolled.”
Pelosi doesn’t shy away from pointing out that she thinks progressives’ ideas are too pie-in-the-sky. She once called the Green New Deal “the green dream or whatever they call it,” saying “nobody knows what it is.” And her top staff has reportedly criticized single-payer health care to private insurance company executives.
All of this has boiled over publicly. But it should be noted it hasn’t changed legislative outcomes; progressives continue to work with leadership and vote for most Democratic proposals.
Pelosi and the “squad” are talking to different party bases
Pelosi told reporters she doesn’t regret the comments she made in the New York Times. She was talking about the vote count — and progressives didn’t have the votes to get their way.
That said, it’s hard to deny their influence on the party. As the Washington Post’s Jeff Stein tweeted, Ocasio-Cortez spearheaded the Green New Deal, Omar and Jayapal are the House sponsors of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s free college and $1.6 trillion debt forgiveness proposal, Tlaib has proposed a $3,000-per-adult basic income for low-income adults, and Pressley sponsored the House bill to secure back pay to furloughed government contractors.
That list goes on. This week, Ocasio-Cortez partnered with Sanders to propose a climate emergency resolution. She’s also working with Sen. Kamala Harris on a forthcoming public housing bill. Jayapal is working with Harris on an updated worker’s bill of rights. These ideas have all made it onto the national stage in the presidential debates and are leading the conversation on the campaign trail.
But Pelosi is talking about a different electoral base: the constituents of the more than two dozen House freshman that flipped Republican-held seats in 2018 to win Democrats the majority.
“Every day some of our members have to fight the fight for their reelection,” Pelosi said. “It’s easy for me in my district, right? I never have to worry about whether a Democrat will represent that district, whether it’s me or somebody else. But, in their districts, it makes a difference for what we can do for the American people if we have the majority.”
That’s largely understood — among progressives, too. But they’re still fighting for recognition.
“We all have followings,” Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) said. “We all come with our constituents.”
“All I’ll say is, stay woke,” Lee said.