Pelosi this week sought to refocus her party after months of intensive attention — and Republican attacks — on ambitious and costly policy initiatives from her party’s left. In both cases, the bills are much more in line with the centrist platforms of freshman lawmakers who unseated Republicans in dozens of suburban and rural districts that will be crucial to the party holding its majority in 2020.
Pelosi has been careful not to openly disparage the left-wing proposals on health care and climate change, lest she open a fissure inside her caucus. At a closed-door meeting Tuesday, for instance, she said she was not ruling out broader legislation: “This is no substitute to anything else — this is a path to everything else,” she said, according to notes taken by an individual in the room who described the meeting on the condition of anonymity.
“Let’s use the word ‘LOVE,’ ” she added. “It means, ‘Let Other Versions Exist.’ ”
This week’s proposals came days after special counsel Robert S. Mueller III submitted a report to the Justice Department that partially lifted an investigatory cloud over Trump. The legislation also came after weeks of Republican attacks — by Trump, congressional Republicans and GOP political groups — aimed at painting Democrats as socialist radicals.
The main GOP target is freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), one of the sponsors for the Green New Deal, which envisions the United States achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions within a decade while guaranteeing Americans high-paying jobs and high-quality health care.
At a congressional hearing Tuesday, Ocasio-Cortez called climate change a “national crisis” on par with the Great Depression and World War II in a passionate speech that would be viewed online by millions.
Less than 24 hours later, when Pelosi discussed her legislation, the words “Green New Deal” were not mentioned during the half-hour news conference.
To the centrist wing of the Democratic caucus, Pelosi’s approach is a matter of basic political acumen — reflecting the realities of leading a party that has a House majority thanks only to freshmen who unseated Republicans in swing and GOP-leaning districts.
“We’re actually a more purple caucus today than we were a year ago, and that’s a story that doesn’t get told, and it’s a story that is stoked by the Republican Party who is desperately trying to paint us as completely off-the-reservation socialist,” said Rep. Jim Himes (Conn.), a past chairman of the moderate New Democrat Coalition. “And the fact of the matter is, our leader today is being as pragmatic as I’ve ever seen her be in the service of keeping a big tent vibrant.”
Rep. Chrissy Houlahan (D-Pa.), a freshman representing a suburban Philadelphia district, said her constituents would like to see the Affordable Care Act shored up.
“They don’t want to see a wholesale, upside-down change in health care. My community would just like to see us not strangle what we have already created and work at the margins to improve what we have. That’s what I think the speaker’s package put forward,” Houlahan said.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a co-chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and a lead author of the Medicare-for-all bill in the House, said she appreciated Pelosi’s words and openness to broader legislation — but said more ultimately needed to be done.
“We have 30 million uninsured, 40 million underinsured — some of that will get fixed with some of these shore-up provisions, but there is a bigger problem here,” said Jayapal, who added that she was pleased Pelosi assented to allowing hearings on her proposals.
Jayapal also said she was “surprised” the Green New Deal went unmentioned during Wednesday’s climate event, which also included Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, and Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.), chairwoman of a new special committee on the “climate crisis.”
“I can tell you it’s on the lips of almost every American across the country,” Jayapal said. “We should use that momentum because I do think that all Democrats believe we have to address climate change as an urgent crisis.”
Besides climate and health-care legislation, tension has emerged on other fronts: At a Tuesday lunch hosted by the New Democrats, Education and Labor Committee Chairman Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.) faced pointed questions as he pitched members on a $15 minimum-wage bill. And Democratic leaders are also on the cusp of abandoning any effort to pass a 2020 budget resolution thanks to tensions between moderates and liberals over potential tax hikes and military funding cuts.
“I think the fact they can’t put a budget on the floor is a pretty good indicator of where they are,” said Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.), chairwoman of the House Republican Conference. “It is a very radical, far-left agenda, and it sure looks to me like the leader of the Democratic Party in the House is not Nancy Pelosi — it’s the radical left in the freshman class.”
While Pelosi is moving to the center to protect her majority, the party’s presidential candidates are mostly doing the opposite. Most candidates are backing some form of a Green New Deal, and most are pushing for expansions of government health care well beyond the ACA.
For some in the left flank of the Democratic caucus, the presidential campaign is where the real action is, not in a House majority that has to contend with a Republican president and Senate for at least 21 more months.
“The vision of the Democratic Party, the platform of the party, will be defined by our 2020 nominee — that’s who speaks for the party,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), a Progressive Caucus member who backs Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) for the presidential nomination. “Nancy’s got to think about, how do we advance things in the House? And she does have to be mindful of the internal politics. That’s why she’s speaker of the House and I’m not.”