House Democrats find themselves in one of the trickiest battles on Capitol Hill, trying to prove their unity in the fight against President Trump and on core issues they campaigned on last year.
They had a remarkably effective first two months in the majority, defying Trump on his demand for a border wall and clearly winning the leftover budget battle from 2018. They passed a significant bill that would require expanded background checks on gun purchases. And they are poised to approve an expansive bill that would revamp ethics and electoral laws.
But those early wins are threatened by the growing controversy about how House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) resolves the dispute with some outspoken first-term Democrats on issues related to Israel, an ideological and generational fault line that could end up sowing more division among Pelosi’s ranks for the bigger fights ahead.
The focus is again on Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress, and remarks about “loyalty” to Israel. After leadership signaled a willingness to advance a softly worded resolution related to anti-Semitism, Omar’s allies rallied to her defense and accused Pelosi’s leadership team of inappropriately singling out the Somali refugee.
Led by Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), fellow freshman Democrats, Omar’s defenders sidelined the original resolution, and now leaders are cobbling together a broader draft that would oppose many forms of offensive actions.
It may seem trivial — a nonbinding resolution expressing opposition to intolerance of all kinds — but this is a critical test for leadership to bring the caucus back together.
After Wednesday’s closed-door meeting of Democrats erupted over the issue, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) tried to explain that the divisions only undermined the broader effort.
“Our diversity is our strength, our unity is our power. And whenever we have been unified, we’ve been successful,” Jeffries, chairman of the caucus, told reporters. He cited the 2017 effort to defeat the repeal of the Affordable Care Act and the shutdown fight over Trump’s border demands. “We’re all clear that as long as we continue to remain unified around the core issues that we promised the American people we would address, then we’re going to be successful.”
Unity on those issues, however, might be determined by how this saga ends, particularly on climate change, health care and the potential constitutional showdown with Trump.
Ocasio-Cortez has become the face of the Green New Deal, the loosely defined umbrella effort to reduce carbon emissions. Omar has a prime seat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which is chaired by Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), a prominent supporter of Israel.
Like Ocasio-Cortez and Omar, Engel is a prominent supporter of the Medicare-for-all legislation unveiled last week by the liberal wing of the caucus.
And Tlaib has emerged as one of the highest-profile voices demanding the impeachment of Trump, something she reiterated again at a news conference Wednesday morning before the Democratic caucus began.
Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) need to end the tension over Omar to build trust for the legislative battles ahead, or else the individuals involved will almost certainly feel aggrieved and take out their anger on more prominent issues.
“It’s very important that we get everybody back on the same page, and I think we are getting there. It’s been growing pains, but we’re getting there,” said Rep. Marcia L. Fudge (D-Ohio), a senior member of the Congressional Black Caucus who opposed the early draft of this week’s anti-Semitism resolution.
Israel has become a divisive issue inside a Democratic caucus that, in years past, tended to agree with Engel’s position and now has a younger flank that views Benjamin Netanyahu’s government as oppressive and aligned with Republicans.
That sentiment grew in 2015 when House Republicans, still in the majority, unilaterally invited Prime Minister Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress — mainly to speak out against the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran.
But on several occasions Omar has engaged in tropes that go beyond questioning Netanyahu’s actions and were deemed anti-Semitic.
That’s put Pelosi in a bind, trying to find a way to admonish and instill discipline in Omar while also avoiding alienating the younger Democrats.
Republicans scored an unusual early win a few weeks ago when they fashioned a procedural amendment to serve as a rebuke of anti-Semitism, and it passed overwhelmingly.
GOP leaders are now waiting for other such motions to divide Democrats, leaving Pelosi’s team to consider a rules change that would hinder Republican efforts at division.
“Nothing good is accomplished by being distracted by issues that divide the nation. We want to bring people together,” Jeffries told reporters.
The new resolution, whenever it is unveiled, is likely to include condemnations of “anti-Semitism, racism, white supremacy, Islamophobia, homophobia and the rise in hate” since Trump was sworn in two years ago, Jeffries suggested.
Jeffries, the No. 5 Democratic leader, runs the weekly caucus meeting and hosts a news conference afterward. He launched this week’s briefing discussing the ethics bill that is supposed to be the big win of the week, with two freshman Democrats at his side who won Republican seats last fall.
Of the 13 questions he faced, just one focused on the content of the ethics bill. Almost every other issue involved Omar in some way, as well as Tlaib’s latest call for impeaching Trump.
“Impeachment is premature,” Jeffries said.
Declaring unity, among Democrats, is also premature.
As Pelosi entered the closed-door meeting, she admonished the media for fixating on the Omar controversy. “The press loves to foment unease in the Democratic Party but we are very united,” she told reporters.
A few minutes later the caucus meeting erupted over how to handle the latest dispute over Israel, ending with more questions than answers. During afternoon votes on the House floor, Pelosi huddled with Fudge and senior members of the Congressional Black Caucus to discuss the issue.
“We’re very diverse,” Fudge said. “We’re just trying to figure out how everybody thinks about things.”