As internal divisions between progressive and moderate Democrats over the direction of the party’s legislative agenda threaten to erode their new House majority, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi now faces a critical test of her command over the 235-member Democratic caucus.
After caving to pressure amid a showdown over humanitarian relief for immigrants crossing the southern border, Pelosi defended her decision to accept a compromise with Republicans late last month while dismissing the political weight of a quartet of vocal Democratic freshman, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who have fumed that Democrats did not hold out for a better deal.
Inside the meeting Wednesday morning, Pelosi observed that some freshmen Democrats “are here to make a beautiful pâté but we’re making sausage most of the time,” according to an extensive readout from a Democratic source in the room.
“We just have to get the best we can get,” Pelosi, D-Calif., encouraged. “Fight for it. Not settle for anything. But understand that every fight is the beginning of the next fight.”
In the coming weeks, Democrats expect to advance legislation to address accountability for the Department of Homeland Security, establish medical care standards for immigrants in U.S. custody and facilitate compassionate processing of unaccompanied children and families.
Pelosi unabashedly defended her decision to take the border compromise, explaining that the $4.6 billion deal enacted last month will help defend her party’s “majority makers” – who flipped Republican districts and helped Pelosi reclaim the speaker's gavel.
“Every day some of our Members have to fight the fight for their re-election,” Pelosi privately told her colleagues behind closed doors. “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.”
Pelosi seemed to direct her contempt towards the so-called "Squad" – a quartet of freshmen progressives Reps. Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley – signaling it’s time to tamper down criticism of fellow Democrats.
“Understand the value of the majority. It’s the complete difference,” Pelosi underscored after suffering through eight years in the minority. “Of course we have disagreements – there is nothing in advertising more powerful than to say, ‘I am new, and I am free.’ OK, that is good. Now, use that to the advantage of the one-in-five children in America who lives in poverty. Because that is what many of us are here for.”
After the meeting, Pelosi initially painted a rosier picture for reporters, repeating a common talking point that “our diversity is our strength, our unity is our power” before drawing a contrast with Republicans who “do not share our values.”
But after she was asked whether she regretted any of her comments quoted in a New York Times opinion column that published last Saturday, Pelosi unloaded.
“No, I do not,” Pelosi insisted. “Four people voted against the bill. That’s what I said. I have no regrets about anything. Regrets are not what I do.”
As Pelosi walked off, she turned back to reporters unprompted to seemingly take on Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff, who has publicly questioned the speaker’s bona fides as a “legislative mastermind.”
“And by the way, our caucus is very upset about some of the comments that have come from the staff of …,” Pelosi sneered, cutting herself off without naming Ocasio-Cortez. “Perhaps you’re not aware of what’s going on?”
Pelosi didn’t have to namecheck AOC’s chief of staff Saikat Chakrabarti for reporters to know exactly whose staff she was admonishing. After New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd’s interview with the speaker was published on Saturday, Chakrabarti questioned Pelosi’s legislative expertise through a series of tweets – a rare public display of discord from a congressional staffer.
“All these articles want to claim what a legislative mastermind Pelosi is, but I'm seeing way more strategic smarts from freshman members like @AOC, @IlhanMN , @RashidaTlai and @AyannaPressley,” Chakrabarti tweeted July 6. “Pelosi is just mad that she got outmaneuvered (again) by Republicans.”
Chakrabarti then said current times call for “leaders that lead,” citing his boss and the other members of the so-called “Squad” as examples.
“Voters want representatives who will fight, even if they lose,” he tweeted. “The fact that House Democratic leadership doesn't see this is incredibly troubling.”
While more Republicans voted to pass a bill than Democrats for the first time in the 116th Congress, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer emphasized that the majority of his Democratic caucus still voted for the bill in an effort to “get the best result,” though he conceded the move created some hard feelings.
“We didn’t roll over,” Hoyer, the No. 2 Democrat insisted, stressing the Senate’s bill included several of the House’s priorities. “Nobody rolled over.”
“We had a difference in the caucus. Some people wanted to make a point, as opposed to a policy. It was not so much of a policy different. It was a procedural difference, and a perception difference,” Hoyer, D-Md., said. “We don’t control the Senate, we don’t control the presidency, and Democracy is about trying to get things done, and particularly in our position you need to compromise.”
House Democratic Caucus chairman Hakeem Jeffries worked to downplay the “impassioned” divisions over the humanitarian crisis at the border Wednesday, joking with reporters, “It’s all puppies and rainbows.”
“Now we’re at a point where we can move forward, and we will move forward in defense of both the rule of law on the border and in defense of our cherished history as a nation of immigrants,” Jeffries, D-N.Y., said.
For days the fallout from the article splitting two of the country’s most prominent Democrats appeared to widen after Pelosi highlighted that none of the Squad’s rabble-rousers supported a Democratic version of legislation that passed the House but was quickly defeated in the Senate.
“All these people have their public whatever and their Twitter world,” Pelosi told Dowd for the column published in the New York Times on Saturday. “But they didn’t have any following. They’re four people and that’s how many votes they got.”
Ocasio-Cortez, known colloquially as AOC on Capitol Hill, shot back in a series of tweets consumed by her loyal force of nearly 5 million Twitter followers – two million more than Pelosi’s following.
"Having respect for ourselves doesn’t mean we lack respect for her. It means we won’t let everyday people be dismissed," she said.
But the reality on Capitol Hill is that the longevity of Pelosi’s speakership depends more heavily on her majority makers than AOC or the other progressive freshmen whose seats aren’t at risk in 2020.
Ahead of a House Oversight hearing Wednesday during which Ocasio-Cortez would listen to testimony from an asylum seeker whose sick 19-month-old baby died weeks after spending time in an ICE detention facility, the congresswoman told ABC News she hopes the conversation about the border crisis begins to shift.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., said of the plight of Yazmin Juárez, who has filed a wrongful death claim against the U.S. government after her daughter Mariee died. “I’m looking forward to hearing her story and she has a lot of bravery to be able to do what she’s doing. I hope it will be a pivotal moment.”