The self-proclaimed “Squad” — the four young, first-term liberal congresswomen who clashed earlier in the year with fellow freshmen from swing districts — has drifted into the background with so much attention now focused on the House Intelligence Committee’s impeachment inquiry.
None of the more than 60 freshman Democrats sits on that key panel, which has given the newcomers a chance to learn the ropes without the kleig lights of cable news chasing them every which way.
In recent weeks, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) has walked the Capitol halls alone, no staffers at her side monitoring the media questions she has faced, because very few members of the media have been hounding the highest profile Squad member.
On Thursday, just off the House floor, she fielded a few questions about her policy positions on social media, not any dispute with fellow Democrats.
“It’s been a relief,” she acknowledged afterward.
Democrats across the spectrum have noticed the detente.
“Have you heard much from them recently? Not really,” said Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.), a senior member of the centrist Blue Dog Coalition.
Impeachment is always mentioned first as a reason that the typical Democratic infighting has subsided, according to Schrader, Ocasio-Cortez and a handful of senior aides.
Ironically, it previously divided the caucus, as liberals believed the special counsel report on Russian interference in the 2016 election provided enough ammunition to impeach Trump. But dozens of Democrats from swing districts found that their constituents were confused by the complicated case, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) sided with the swing-district representatives.
Then the Ukraine issue broke open and, rather than holding back, those swing-district freshmen led the push to start the inquiry. And under the watch of Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) the past two months went better than any Democrat expected.
Schrader, who never shies from a battle with the liberal flank, praised Schiff’s handling of the probe and brushed aside GOP complaints about the process.
Ocasio-Cortez said polling has shifted enough in the Democratic direction on impeachment that the issue no longer splits the caucus. “Frankly, I think that a lot more people are on the same page about the president’s misconduct, even in the country, now than before,” she said.
But Democrats say tensions also eased within the caucus because so many freshmen are finally learning the rhythm of Congress. In the earliest days of the new majority, basic procedural votes created pitched battles over how many Democrats sided with Republicans, including a few dozen endangered freshmen worried that even a single obscure vote could be used against them in next year’s elections.
“When we first get here, all of us are freshmen. Every vote seems make-or-break,” Ocasio-Cortez explained.
Over time, those procedural votes have lost their potency, with less acrimony directed at the few Democrats who vote with Republicans.
Schrader, now in his sixth term, said that every member of the House eventually learns that their agenda needs a coalition to pass, and coalitions require building relationships and allies.
“One thing you learn serving in a legislative body, you don’t have any friends, you don’t have any enemies. You have got allies and adversaries, and they change at any given moment on any given bill,” he said.
Ocasio-Cortez received an education in this during the July debate on the Pentagon policy bill. She pushed a pair of amendments to bar the Defense Department from deploying troops to the southern border and to restrict funds from being spent on holding undocumented immigrants at military facilities.
More than 50 fellow Democrats opposed her amendments, which received fewer than 180 votes, well short of the majority.
Insiders think her poor vote total can be attributed to the policy and personality clashes that came just a few weeks before. Democrats pushed a bill to ease the crisis of undocumented immigrants at the border, including mandates over the conditions and treatment of those in detention centers.
Ocasio-Cortez and Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) voted against the original bill, and after Pelosi relented to pressure from moderates and put the Senate bill on the floor, they led the fight against that bill.
Democratic staffers spent the next weekend in a public war of words on Twitter, a clash compounded by Pelosi’s interview with New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd in which the speaker demeaned the Squad as just “four people” with four votes.
Finally, at the end of July, Pelosi and Ocasio-Cortez held an hour-long meeting behind closed doors. A week later, the rising liberal star shook up her senior staff amid a more-than six-week break, something that served as a relief for freshmen who would spend time with their families, campaign and go on official trips abroad.
Many returned with a new outlook. Among them was Ocasio-Cortez, who described her conversations with fellow Democrats as much more productive now.
“I know you feel this way about this, but what about we work together on that?” Ocasio-Cortez said.
Schrader praises Pelosi’s touch, a remarkable sentiment considering how bitter the Blue Dogs felt toward leadership during Pelosi’s first reign as speaker. That ended with many of those moderate-to-conservative Democrats wiped out in the 2010 midterm elections.
Now, Schrader said, the Blue Dogs have the “ear of leadership,” including weekly meetings with other ideological caucuses. “It’s night-and-day difference. You can’t even compare. Oh yeah, it’s night-and-day difference. Yeah, we were dead to them 10 years ago.”
How long will this detente last? Probably not long, these being Democrats.
Ocasio-Cortez noted that the caucus has benefited from not having any immigration and border legislation to consider in the past four months, something that is coming in a few weeks when Congress must pass spending bills that will lead to another clash with Trump over his demands for funding of a border wall.
A new North American trade deal could hit the floor next month or in early January.
And Schrader actually thinks impeachment is causing its own problems, distracting lawmakers from other agenda items.
“I’d argue the tension is high now, not against one another but just the whole impeachment thing. It’s tough to break through that,” he said.