House Democrats are calling for unity amid a week of escalating tensions and sharp words that have once again laid bare the deep divides in a caucus fractured along ideological and generational lines.
A growing rift has spilled out into public view between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who has pushed back in the face of comments from the speaker that have widely been interpreted as hostile toward the four progressive freshmen Democrats known as “the squad” — Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts.
The tensions could make it harder for House Democrats to coalesce as several major fights loom — from deadlines to lift the debt limit and fund the government to avert another shutdown to oversight of the Trump administration as now more than 80 Democrats are urging to start an impeachment inquiry.
When pressed by reporters on recent comments Ocasio-Cortez made to The Washington Post saying that there has been an “explicit singling out of newly elected women of color,” Pelosi sounded like she wanted to change the subject. “I’ve said what I’m going to say in the caucus,” the speaker responded at her weekly news conference on Thursday when asked about the remark.
The day before, on Wednesday, Pelosi had delivered an impassioned pitch for unity, herself, during a closed-door caucus meeting, encouraging her colleagues to turn their ire on the Republican Senate majority leader instead of one another and seeking to defend moderate members of her caucus who are on the front lines of re-elections in places where Trump won or where Democrats have flipped long-held GOP seats.
According to Democrats in the meeting, Pelosi also urged members against tweets admonishing fellow Democratic members of Congress. Just one recent example: Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff came under fire for comparing moderates to segregationists (he has since deleted the tweet).
On Thursday morning, however, Ocasio-Cortez appeared to stand by her claim that Pelosi unfairly singles out women of color, telling CNN, “It’s really just pointing out the pattern, right? We’re not talking about just progressives, it’s signaling out four individuals. And knowing the media environment that we’re operating in, knowing the amount of death threats that we get, knowing the amount of concentration of tension, I think it’s just worth asking why.”
Though when asked if she believes that Pelosi has racial animus, Ocasio-Cortez said adamantly, “No, no, absolutely not, absolutely not.”
After the four progressive freshmen opposed a House border aid bill, Pelosi downplayed their influence within the House Democratic caucus, telling The New York Times, “All these people have their public whatever and their Twitter world,” but adding, “But they didn’t have any following. They’re four people and that’s how many votes they got.”
The comments followed a contentious and at times emotional debate over the border legislation that split House Democrats along progressive and centrist ideological lines.
Moderate members argued that it was important to pass a Senate version of the legislation when it appeared that the upper chamber would refuse to take up the House bill, while progressives railed against the process and insisted that lawmakers were not doing enough to negotiate for and ensure adequate protections for migrant children detained at the border.
Pelosi defenders question AOC’s remark
A number of House Democrats came to Pelosi’s defense on Thursday in the wake of Ocasio-Cortez’s “singling out” comment.
Karen Bass, the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, told CNN that the criticism that Pelosi singles out women of color is not correct and that she planned to talk to the freshman Democrat about it.
“I did see that she said that, and I actually want to go talk to her about that,” Bass said, adding, I don’t believe that that’s the correct.”
Asked if the criticism is unfair, Bass said: “Well, I want to find out why she’s making that criticism. I certainly know that she has been critical of some women of color. But I don’t think that means that that’s who she’s targeting.”
Rep. Lacy Clay of Missouri accused Ocasio-Cortez of using “the race card.”
“What a weak argument,” Clay said. “Because you can’t get your way, and because you are-, you’re getting pushback, you resort to use the race card? Unbelievable. Unbelievable to me.”
A member of the Congressional Black Caucus, Clay has served in the House since 2001. In the 2018 election, Clay had a primary challenger, whom Ocasio-Cortez backed. He is again facing a challenger in the primary for 2020.
A progressive House aide told CNN that they have never seen members picked on by a speaker this much before. The aide added that the “alienation” of the freshmen progressives has been a pattern and said, “unless you are a woman of color in that situation I don’t think you can judge.”
‘It’s time to move on’
Meanwhile, some House Democrats are seeking common ground between the factions.
A key progressive voice, Rep. Ro Khanna of Calfornia, who is friends with Ocasio-Cortez, told CNN that it is time to move on and rally around the Speaker.
“It’s time to move on. Let’s rally around the Speaker,” Khanna said on Thursday. “We need to support the Speaker and she is the most successful woman in American politics in history. She is the leader and we need to support her and focus our fire on people like Mitch McConnell or the President.”
And some members appear to hope that further discussion could lead to a productive result.
Wisconsin Rep. Mark Pocan, a co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive caucus, said on Thursday that he and Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal, another co-chair, are setting up a meeting with Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland.
“We’re actually setting up a meeting,” Pocan replied when he was asked about the public divisions. “This is a pretty busy week on the floor for everybody, but probably next week.”
Jayapal was spotted speaking with Pelosi on the House floor on Thursday afternoon for around 10 minutes.
“We’ve asked for — Mark Pocan and I — have asked for a meeting with her, not just to talk about this but to talk about the general relationship of the progressives to the Democratic caucus. And so we’re looking forward to having that discussion with her,” Jayapal said on Thursday.
Jayapal said that in general she believes that Pelosi has been “very respectful of our members,” but added, “It’s always harder when it’s perceived as coming from your own side, whether that was how it was intended or not, it’s always much harder.”
“I would like to know what’s going on here because I don’t think that this is typically — the comments she made, however she meant them, have a certain interpretation, obviously, and I think it’s just important that we clear this,” she said.
Jayapal added. “But you know, you gotta have broad shoulders around here, and it doesn’t always feel very good, and it’s just a constant thing we deal with as women of color.”