This past week, House Democrats ran smack into the media engine that is driven by President Trump. It was supposed to be their biggest week yet in the young days of their majority, passing the first major legislation Democrats campaigned on: a bill expanding federal background checks for gun purchases and transfers.
Moreover, the insurgent liberal wing of the caucus unveiled its sweeping health-care proposal, billed as Medicare-for-all, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) delivered several major policy addresses around Washington.
Almost nothing broke through the din of the never-ending Trump news cycle.
Instead, the news was dominated almost entirely by the testimony of Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, and the president’s trip to Vietnam for a failed summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Yarmuth shook his head thinking about the predicament.
“There’s no question it’s going to be a real challenge. I don’t have an answer to that, but that’s the territory,” he said Thursday.
It’s a conundrum Republicans dealt with the first two years of Trump’s presidency, a recurring nightmare in which, whenever they made progress on an agenda item, the president stepped on their message with a controversial tweet.
At the start of their 2017 issues retreat, Republicans faced an endless stream of questions about the latest Trump news — on that day, he tweeted news of the creation of a task force to investigate voter fraud.
“It’s a work in progress,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) told reporters at the time.
Now Democrats are finding their initiatives stuck in the same Trump quicksand, struggling to reach a broader audience.
In fact, the follow-up stories about the gun legislation have actually dealt with Democratic infighting and recriminations about how the leadership team allowed a controversial Republican amendment to pass with support from moderate Democrats.
Instead of a valedictory walk-off, the week ended with Pelosi in a Capitol basement room calling for unity. The caucus’s newest star, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), threatened to encourage liberal activists to confront those who wavered from the party line.
After so many weeks of apparent unity, standing up to and defeating Trump on the government shutdown, House Democrats saw fissures for the first time, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
The easiest path back to unity requires Democrats to line up more votes on the agenda they ran on last year, the reform agenda and the “kitchen table” issues they stayed focused on despite every Trump tweet and revelation that popped up.
Those issues — such as guaranteeing coverage for people with preexisting medical conditions and reducing the cost of prescription drugs — have languished as clashes with Trump have taken center stage.
Twelve years ago, during her first stint as speaker, Pelosi marched through the first six major Democratic bills in just two weeks, from legislation providing college-debt relief to an increase in the minimum wage.
This time, it took almost two months to get to one of the first 10 bills, and instead of celebration, it led to acrimony.
Some pointed fingers at the swing-district Democrats who defected on the GOP motion, others defended them for toeing the middle just like their districts. Some blamed leadership for not being more organized. And some just wondered if mistakes are inevitable when you cobble together the most ideologically, ethnically, geographically diverse Democratic caucus ever.
“I have to deal with Christians and Jews, I have to deal with Muslims and Buddhists, and we have to deal with people from all walks and backgrounds,” House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) explained Thursday. “And therefore the cultural differences that exist in our caucus are a little bit different than the other side. So it’s going to be a little bit more difficult for us.”
The issue came to a head during the gun debate, when Republicans wrote a tricky procedural motion to function exactly like an amendment vote to require state and local officials to report any undocumented immigrants denied gun purchases to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“We found out like two minutes before, whenever they started speaking,” said Rep. Joe Cunningham (D-S.C.), one of 31 Democrats representing a district Trump won in 2016.
All told, 26 Democrats joined Republicans, 19 of whom were freshmen from politically vulnerable districts. This group has received nothing close to the attention of Ocasio-Cortez and other liberal newcomers.
Their vote Wednesday served notice that they should not be taken for granted.
For a brief moment, the fate of the overall bill hung in the balance. Some liberals did not want to vote for the background-check legislation with the immigration policy rider. Ocasio-Cortez first voted present on final passage, but Democrats realized the embarrassment of failing on their first major agenda item would have been brutal.
Pelosi’s team convinced all but two centrist Democrats to vote yes.
The next big legislative item is H.R. 1, as the House majority’s most important bill is known. It is a massive collection of ethics and election security laws, ready for a vote in the next couple of weeks.
But more hearings about the Trump-Russia investigation are coming, and everyone is awaiting the conclusion of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation.
Yarmuth believes impeachment hearings should be convened based on Cohen’s allegations that Trump committed crimes since taking office. He said the distraction of the impeachment process could not be much worse than how distracting recent events have already been.
“I don’t know how much different that would be than what’s going on now,” Yarmuth said.
As she walked onto the stage for her weekly news conference, even Pelosi acknowledged the many distractions circling above the Capitol.
“While that’s all going on, we’re keeping the House running here,” she said.