After a triumphant start this year in which she bested President Trump in an epic showdown over a government shutdown, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is now struggling to unify Democrats after two weeks of painful infighting that could have lasting ramifications for her newfound majority and the 2020 election.
The bitter intraparty dispute, which centered on remarks by freshman Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) that many in both parties viewed as anti-Semitic, resulted in the passage last week of a resolution broadly condemning hatred that received unanimous support from Democrats — yet served to underscore Pelosi’s deep challenges in bridging schisms of race, religion, age and gender within her vastly diverse caucus.
The episode also suggested that a power struggle between a group of vocal newcomers on the left, including Omar and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), and veteran lawmakers is likely to be a persistent problem for Pelosi (D-Calif.) as she seeks to keep the party focused on opposing Trump and his agenda ahead of the 2020 elections.
Omar has refused to apologize for the comments that set off last week’s firestorm, when she suggested that Israel’s supporters have “an allegiance to a foreign country.” And Ocasio-Cortez asserted in a fundraising message that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), an influential pro-Israel group, was “coming after” her, Omar and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) over their foreign policy views.
Pelosi’s ability to navigate such divisions could have far-reaching implications. If the party’s tensions on subjects ranging from health care to climate change — not to mention age and strategy — continue to boil over publicly, they are likely to distract from Democrats’ desired messages to voters and provide fodder for Republican attacks.
“I see the challenge [Pelosi] has with the far left and some of the freshmen coming in now who have high energy, so she’s trying to balance that out,” said Rep. Stephen F. Lynch (D-Mass.), a centrist who has criticized Pelosi in the past but argued that she has done a good job under the circumstances.
“Being a speaker — especially on the Democratic side — is like herding cats,” said Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.). “. . . The cats have to understand who provides the water and kibble and cleans the litter. Once the cats understand that, it’ll get better.”
Cohen also argued that the freshmen could cripple the party if they don’t fall in line soon. “It’s a shame because they weren’t in the wilderness for eight years, as we were in the minority,” he said.
Republicans, meanwhile, are elated at their sudden change in fortune. For two years, House GOP leaders tried to play down their own internal strife as Trump threw the party into disarray. Now their divisions are an afterthought.
“We understand what it’s like to be in the majority. It’s tough,” said Rep. Patrick T. McHenry (R-N.C.), a former chief deputy whip. “And it’s clear they’re having [an] even tougher time than we had.”
Pelosi and her team have played down party tensions and blamed the news media for exaggerating internal Democratic strife.
“The Democratic Party is inherently a coalition party; we are not a caucus that is 99 percent old white men,” Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill said in a statement Sunday. “Sometimes that takes time. Sometimes it takes a lot of discussion and listening. And that’s always been something [Pelosi] excels at — and at the end of the day we get the job done.”
Asked about the fiery freshmen Friday during an interview at the Economic Club of Washington, Pelosi lavished praise on the newbies, saying they were a “joy” and an “invigoration.” During a news conference earlier in the week, Pelosi had also mused about how she had once been a vocal activist just like them. “That was me pushing a stroller and carrying those signs!” she said.
But at other times, cracks showed through Pelosi’s confident exterior.
During a leadership meeting on Tuesday night, Pelosi grew angry and raised her voice to Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) when Dingell pulled out her phone and read a tweet by Ocasio-Cortez, according to two people who were there and requested anonymity to disclose details of a private meeting.
In the tweet, Ocasio-Cortez defended Omar, her close friend, as Pelosi and her leadership team were readying an initial version of the resolution responding to Omar’s foreign allegiance remark.
In the meeting, Dingell agreed with Ocasio-Cortez’s assessment that House Democrats shouldn’t be focused on rebuking one of their own but should also be calling out homophobia, racism and xenophobia in general. According to the people in the room, Pelosi was offended at the suggestion that Democrats didn’t already stand up against all forms of hate and grew visibly angry.
As it turned out, Dingell wasn’t the only lawmaker who wanted to broaden the scope of the resolution.
The Congressional Black Caucus — furious that their colleagues hadn’t done more to call out racist comments in the past — agreed, as did some of Omar’s liberal colleagues and several Democrats running for president, who took to Twitter and pushed back against Pelosi’s original plan focusing on anti-Semitism alone. A Pelosi spokesman said the speaker supported broadening the language all along.
But when Pelosi changed course, Jewish members grew upset. One of them, Rep. Ted Deutch (Fla.), a Pelosi ally, took his concerns to the House floor to ask why they couldn’t simply pass a resolution calling out hate against Jews.
Trump reveled in the mess, accusing Democrats of being “anti-Israel” and “anti-Jewish.” And the entire ordeal — sparked by a freshman who refused to mute her criticism of U.S. policy toward Israel — stole headlines away from a major campaign finance package that the House passed Friday.
Pelosi’s predicament is a dramatic shift from just a month ago, when even her critics were awed by her ability to unify Democrats through a 35-day shutdown, refusing to give Trump even $1 for his promised southern border wall with Mexico. The speaker, long hailed as one of the savviest leaders in modern political history, found herself playing peacemaker and imploring her colleagues to play nice.
“The best advice I ever received when I came here those years ago was: Don't question the motivations of our colleagues,” Pelosi told her members in a tense private meeting last week, according to one source in the room. “You can disagree wholeheartedly, but do not question their patriotism or their loyalty to our country in any way. And that holds for the Republicans as well.”
During the same meeting, freshman Rep. Jahana Hayes (D-Conn.) challenged Pelosi for not telling the caucus about the Omar resolution before it became public. And Democrats scolded each other for tweeting mean comments at their colleagues.
“Look, when you have an exciting, diverse class with many new members, we all have to get to know each other and respect each other’s values. But at this point, we’re moving on,” said Rep. Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.), a Jewish member who fought with Omar on Twitter about her comments. “I think the lesson learned is that we have to understand each other and respect each other.”
Speaking privately to members Thursday morning, House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) compared the atmosphere among Democrats with his own experiences in the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Clyburn was a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which wanted aggressive action to force radical changes. That group clashed with the old guard of activists, led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, who were determined to move more carefully toward the same goal.
“We all have roles to play,” Clyburn told reporters Friday, describing what he learned from his experiences then. “My thing is: You listen to people, you make sure that you get them to some level of comfort.”
The progressive wing is not the only group causing headaches for Pelosi. Democrats have been clashing over Republican maneuvering after moderates — many of them freshmen who defeated GOP incumbents — voted against their own party on politically divisive Republican amendments. The internal frustration kicked into high gear last month after the GOP notched a surprise win on a high-profile gun-control bill, with Pelosi demanding that lawmakers toe the party line.
The issue remains a point of tension. Pelosi’s deputies — Clyburn and Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) — had encouraged some in the caucus to vote their district even if it meant siding with Republicans occasionally, while Pelosi protested. The three huddled last week to try to get on the same page.
On Thursday morning, some freshmen vented privately about the mixed messages they had gotten from House leaders about the process at a meeting hosted by Assistant Speaker Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), according to two people present.
With a major Democratic bill involving elections and ethics rules changes hanging in the balance on Friday, Pelosi faced a fresh test as she sought to enforce order. When Republicans offered a measure targeting voting by illegal immigrants, her leadership team chose one of the moderate freshmen who had voted for some of the earlier GOP amendments, Rep. Max Rose (D-N.Y.), to rally his colleagues.
“This is a political stunt meant to divide us, meant to sow hatred, and it’s a game, nothing less,” Rose said.
During the vote, Pelosi, Hoyer and Clyburn huddled over a table monitoring lists of how Democrats were voting. When only six broke with the party, Democrats cheered — a bright spot in a tough week.
“When you assume the role of the majority party, there are necessarily steps that must be taken in order to adjust,” Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.) said. “There are some things that need to be worked out in the caucus, but the [leadership team] understands that and is working on it.”
Said first-term Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.): “What we learned is that we’re a caucus with growing pains, which is totally normal and natural.”