WASHINGTON — Just over two months into the new Congress, House Democrats are confronting the kinds of major challenges that often come with majority rule and facing internal fractures on highly charged issues that are distracting from the leadership's strategic objectives.
A series of conflicts in recent weeks is dividing the party along ideological lines and presenting fresh obstacles, not only for those at the top but also new members who were elected in more conservative districts as well as those who were swept into office on a progressive wave.
“I describe it as the growing pains of a majority. We haven’t been in this situation in a decade,” Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., said. “We’re not in that state of critical care right now, but they’re growing pains and we have to work through it.
The internal firestorm is not only a rhetorical headache but is also distracting from the Democrats’ legislative objectives. Instead of garnering attention for a bill expected to pass this week to reduce the amount of money in politics and restore faith in the voting process, which was already delayed by the government shutdown, Democrats are trying to tamp down dissent — on statements about Israel, demands for impeachment and votes taken by vulnerable new members.
Some party leaders say the rifts have been overblown.
“I don’t accept the premise that we’re divided,” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the Democratic caucus chair. “We are untied around the fact that we’re going to continue to fight for the people. That’s what we’re united around.”
But the divisions have been on public display. The most explosive example has been the debate over comments made by freshman Rep. llhan Omar, D-Minn., who recently said supporters of Israel have “allegiance to a foreign country” — the latest contentious comment she has made about the Jewish state.
Frustrations came to a head Wednesday morning in a tense caucus meeting where Democrats debated a resolution drafted by House leadership condemning anti-Semitism. One freshman lawmaker, Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-Conn., upset that she learned about the resolution from cable news, confronted Speaker Nancy Pelosi, saying there should be more of a discussion among members.
The measure was supposed to be voted on this week but it's still unclear when it will be brought to the floor as members were tried to reach consensus.Some Jewish members are demanding a vote on a resolution denouncing anti-Semitism similar to the one previously offered by Republicans and passed after Omar made other remarks about Jewish influence in politics. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., was emphatic when she said a resolution focused on anti-Semitism is necessary. “Unfortunately,” she added.
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But progressive members and the Congressional Black Caucus have come to Omar’s defense. “We also stand united against Islamophobia and I think we want to make sure that we express all the pieces of bigotry and racism that are happening,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., said.
A second front in the internal battle is emerging around possible impeachment proceedings. House leaders, including key committee chairmen, have been adamant about their desire to conduct investigations before making such a determination. But some new back-benchers are demanding a more aggressive approach.
Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., who was admonished in January for saying at a private gathering that House Democrats were going to “impeach the mother f---er,” held a rally on Capitol Hill on Wednesday with activists pushing for immediate impeachment proceedings. "We saw record turnout in an election year where people wanted to elect the jury that would begin the impeachment proceedings to Donald Trump," she said.
Jeffries, a member of leadership, maintains that impeachment is “premature," but allows that each member has their own constituency.
“There’s 435 voting members of this Congress, so that means there are 435 independent contractors accountable only to communities they were elected to represent,” Jeffries said.
Tlaib downplayed any division between her and leadership, saying, “We may disagree on the pace, we may disagree that we have to wait for certain hearings, but at the same time, I think they all know the dangers of allowing President Trump to continue to violate our United States Constitution.”
Another issues dividing the party is how to deal with tactical votes, known as "motions to recommit," on the House floor forced by Republicans. It's a debate that took center stage among Democrats but was sidelined after the latest controversy surrounding Omar.
More than two dozen moderate Democrats, many of whom just won their first or second terms in districts Trump carried in 2016, voted with Republicans on two recent measures, arguing that they are the ones who will face the campaign ads and the backlash at home if they don’t support these largely symbolic measures.
Seventeen Freshman, many from swing districts, have signed onto a letter urging Pelosi to "fix" and "end the abuse" of the motions, noting that they are used "in bad faith and with little transparency."
Progressives, however, backed by Pelosi, have a simpler option: stay united and vote against the GOP's attempts to expose cracks in the majority. Republicans gloat that they never lost a Democratic motion to recommit in eight years in the majority.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., a rising star on the left, has pledged to activate progressives to pressure Democrats to vote against the Republican motions, angering those who are most at risk in the next election because they come from more moderate districts.
“This is a much more broad, diverse — even ideologically diverse — caucus than the Republicans are dealing with, so we’re always going to have to be managing that,” Rep. Katie Hill, D-Calif., who beat a Republican incumbent, said.
“I think that’s one of the biggest challenges you’re presented with when you’re talking about a big tent party and I think that’s what’s exciting about it, that we’re much more reflective of the American people as a whole,” Hill said.
The House Democratic caucus is the most diverse ever, electing for the first time two Muslim women and two Native Americans, and more than 100 women total. The black caucus and the Hispanic caucus are the largest in history. And Democrats won 40 seats previously held by Republicans.
But real challenges remain, including finding agreement on big legislative ideas such as climate change legislation, such as the Green New Deal, and health care, including "Medicare for all." Both issues have also exposed fissures in the party before any real legislating has even begun.
Despite the divides that are being exposed, Grijalva says his party can handle it.
“I think you try to be accommodating and understanding," he said. "When you can’t be accommodating there’s always understanding.”