House Democrats held an emotional debate behind closed doors Thursday over how to stop losing embarrassing procedural battles with Republicans — a clash that exposed the divide between moderates and progressives.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) took a hard line at the caucus meeting, saying that being a member of Congress sometimes requires taking tough votes.
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“This is not a day at the beach. This is the Congress of the United States,” Pelosi said, according to two sources.
Pelosi also said vulnerable Democrats who had the “courage” to vote against the Republican motions to recommit would become a higher priority for the party leadership and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
And Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the superstar New York freshman lawmaker, suggested she would alert progressive activists when Democrats are voting with the GOP on these motions, said the sources.
In the end, Pelosi and other top Democrats didn’t agree to any rules change and will continue to study the issue. The motion to recommit offers the House minority one last shot at changing legislation before it receives a final floor vote. Typically, the motion is used to try to squeeze the majority party, but it rarely succeeds.
Democratic leaders have vowed to do a better job preparing for the Republican motions, but the controversy has divided Pelosi and her longtime lieutenants, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland and Majority Whip Jim Clyburn of South Carolina.
Pelosi argues that Democrats must stick together on procedural votes, which is the traditional view of party leaders on both sides of the aisle. Hoyer and Clyburn, however, have suggested that moderate members can vote with Republicans if they think it will improve their political standing.
Republicans have already won two motions to recommit this Congress, including a Wednesday vote that angered Ocasio-Cortez and other progressives. In contrast, Republicans stuck together and never lost a single such motion when they controlled the House from 2011 to 2019.
The latest defeat came on Wednesday, as the House debated legislation requiring background checks on all gun sales — a position overwhelmingly favored by Democrats. When Republicans moved to amend the bill to require Immigration and Customs Enforcement be told of any undocumented immigrant who tries to buy a gun, 26 Democrats voted with the GOP. The language was added to the gun bill, spoiling an important Democratic legislative achievement.
An earlier GOP motion condemning anti-Semitism was successfully attached to a House resolution barring U.S. involvement in the Yemeni civil war. That maneuver, which was backed by every Democrat, later caused parliamentary problems in the Senate and upended Democratic attempts to challenge President Donald Trump’s foreign policy.
During the closed-door meeting on Thursday, Pelosi said Democrats who vote for the Republicans’ motions are putting pressure on other vulnerable colleagues who would prefer to stick with the party.
“We are either a team or we’re not, and we have to make that decision,” she said.
Pelosi told reporters afterward that she thinks Democrats should simply vote against the GOP motions, saying to do so otherwise gives Republicans “leverage.” But Pelosi didn’t endorse the idea, which some lawmakers support, of changing House rules and nixing the procedural vote altogether some lawmakers support.
“I’m a big believer in respecting the whole House and the rights of the minority to have their say,” Pelosi said during her weekly news conference. “I think we should just vote against all motions to recommit. It’s a procedural vote, it’s a ‘gotcha’ on the part of the opposition.”
Inside the meeting, Ocasio-Cortez said she has “a text chain with 200 activists in her district” that she’s in constant contact with on issues facing Democrats.
Ocasio-Cortez said she even considered voting against the background checks bill because of the Republican language on ICE, perhaps the most-hated federal agency on the left. Ocasio-Cortez went up to the gallery after the vote to tell activists she “had to choose between immigrants and gun violence. Not because of Republicans, but because of Democrats,” said a source in the room.
“I think it is an extension of Trump’s tactics into the House, and we cannot legitimatize it and we cannot allow for it and we cannot support it,” Ocasio-Cortez told reporters after the meeting.
But other members stood up in the meeting and challenged this view, without specifically calling out Pelosi or Ocasio-Cortez.
Freshman Rep. Xochitl Torres Small (D-N.M.), who voted for the GOP motion on Wednesday, grew visibly emotional when speaking and pointedly said courage looks different to different people, according to two sources in the room.
Some lawmakers and aides exited the meeting frustrated with Ocasio-Cortez’s remarks, with one member saying the freshman’s comments sounded like a passive-aggressive threat to Democrats who vote for the GOP motions.
A senior Democratic aide aligned with the caucus’ moderate wing said it was completely hypocritical for progressives to complain about the tough vote they had to take Wednesday.
“Moderates are in tough positions all the time, and they don’t shy away from that,” the aide said. “They have to vote their districts or they will be defeated, plain and simple. The rest of the caucus should [understand] that.”
Democrats aren’t sure how to handle the issue going forward.
Rep. Juan Vargas (D-Calif.) is part of a growing contingent who want to get rid of the motion to recommit completely, telling a reporter, “I think this motion to recommit is the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen.” Vargas spoke in favor of nixing the procedural tool during Thursday’s meeting.
“I’ve had my mole for 57 years, it’s right there on my arm,” Vargas told POLITICO after, pointing to his elbow. “And it does no good, either. It just sits there, one day maybe becoming cancerous. … It’s the same thing with the MTR. There’s no good reason for it.”
But other members disagreed, with Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) telling his colleagues it would “show weakness” to get rid of the motion to recommit entirely, though he’s not opposed to making changes. McGovern later told reporters that party leaders would continue to review the issue in the coming weeks.
“I think that the Republicans — like the Democrats when we were in the minority — used the motion to recommit as a ‘gotcha’ tactic. And I personally, think we shouldn’t fall for it,” McGovern said. “People need to be aware that coming down the road will be ‘gotcha’ amendments that actually gut the bill.”
The heated meeting — which several lawmakers and aides described as “confrontational” and “emotional” — is just the latest in a behind-the-scenes debate that has been simmering for weeks. The dispute has divided Democratic leaders and led to sniping among lawmakers and aides about who is to blame.
One senior Democratic aide said the fault lies with Hoyer and Clyburn, who need to do a better job of communicating to members, particularly the freshmen, about how they should vote. Another senior aide countered that Democrats wouldn’t have lost so many seats in 2010, when Republicans took back the majority, if “Pelosi hadn’t been so cavalier about members’ votes.”
“That should be a lesson for us now,” the second aide added.
There was one victory for Democratic leaders amid all the drama Thursday — they easily defeated a Republican effort to amend legislation that extends the deadline for federal background checks for gun purchases.
“I oppose this motion with every bit of my heart and soul and urge my colleagues to do the same,” Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) said, urging her colleagues to oppose the GOP motion in a passionate speech that left her shaking at the end of her comments.
In the end, only two Democrats — Reps. Collin Peterson of Minnesota and Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey — voted with Republicans, and the GOP motion failed.