Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash), a leader of the House Progressive Caucus, was a key player in a debate over spending this week. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

Do House Democrats have a problem?

It’s a question worth keeping an eye on after this week. On Tuesday, Democratic leaders were forced to pull a vote on a spending bill after opposition from both sides of the party’s ideological spectrum — liberals and centrists — threatened to tank it.

This could end up being a more a symbolic fight than a lasting legislative one. Even so, it reflects the struggle for identity facing the broader Democratic Party. Is it liberal enough? Too liberal for an America that elected President Trump? These are big questions the Democrats are contending with as they try to win the White House. And their identity search is playing out on a near-daily basis in the one Washington establishment that Democrats do have control of, the House of Representatives.

Here’s the gist of what happened and why it’s notable.

  1. Democratic leaders wanted to vote this week on a two-year budget plan that would raise spending caps by equal amounts for military and domestic spending.
  2. Military spending is higher than spending on domestic programs such as education and food stamps, thanks in part to Republicans.
  3. A large group of liberals want Congress to spend exactly as much on domestic programs as it does on the military. They said they wouldn’t vote for this bill without that parity.
  4. On the other side, more centrist Democrats concerned about government debt worried if the liberal wing got its way, Democrats would be accused of spending too much.
  5. The end result was Democrats couldn’t agree. The budget didn’t have the votes to pass, so Democratic leaders canceled the vote.

House Democrats are trying to show they have it together after eight years in the minority, and canceling a vote on an important spending bill is not the message they wanted to broadcast.

“We have to figure out whether we’re going to be able to govern,” House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) told my colleagues.

What happened is not the end of the world for this spending deal, as Molly Reynolds, a congressional budget expert with the Brookings Institution, pointed out. The Democratic-controlled House and the Republican-controlled Senate will continue to negotiate on these spending caps as part of a broader deal to fund the government.

What’s more important is what happens once the two sides agree. A deal that can pass Congress probably won’t meet liberals’ demands. And at that point, it’s fair to ask whether liberals will have the nerve to oppose it. “It’s not clear what the progressives will do when it’s put-up-or-shut-up time on this,” Reynolds said.

Plus, there’s an argument to be made that outspoken liberals may need to moderate for their own good. More centrist Democrats than liberals picked up Republican-held seats in 2018, points out Jim Kessler, a Democratic strategist with the centrist think tank Third Way. Their reelections will be critical for helping House Democrats keep their majority in 2020, and thus their concerns arguably carry more weight than the ones liberals have.

This liberal/moderate divide has been playing out for weeks in the House. The party’s leadership is trying to discourage primary challengers to incumbent Democrats, to the great frustration of members of Congress who won by upsetting entrenched lawmakers. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) broadcast on social media a request that her followers stop donating to House Democrats’ campaign arm because of the policy.

Meanwhile, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is taking on much more existential issues within the party. She is trying to tamp down on the left wing of her party’s thirst for impeachment of Trump (“He’s just not worth it”) or on embracing more radical ideas such as universal health care. (“How do you pay for that?").

But Tuesday marks the first major moment that Democrats’ political problems spilled over into legislation.

Whether Pelosi wants it, debates over issues such as that are lighting up and dividing the 19-and-counting Democrats running for president or seriously considering it. If the intraparty battles in the House are any indication, no one in the party knows which identity is the best one to adopt in 2020. At least, not yet.