Pelosi’s Sharp Message for Democrats Finds Receptive Audience
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has spent the better part of the week sending sharp messages to her liberal critics on and off Capitol Hill. So far, it appears most House Democrats—including many freshmen—are taking her side.
House Democrats have been in an uproar since they left town last month following passage of a $4.6 billion supplemental funding bill for the border. A quartet of first-term lawmakers—Reps. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York—have been especially vocal in their criticism of Mrs. Pelosi and of moderates in the caucus for their handling of the bill.
Some centrists have fired back, and intraparty tensions are clearly simmering. But in interviews with nearly 20 House Democrats on Wednesday, lawmakers largely said they supported the speaker’s recent moves.
“That’s what leaders do, they absorb some of that back-and-forth for the good of the group,” said Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a freshman who represents a Michigan district President Trump won in 2016.
Mrs. Pelosi had unusually tough words Wednesday for her caucus, telling them in a closed-door meeting to stop the infighting and work together to pass legislation. She stressed to members that their control of the chamber was fragile, pointing specifically to the moderate Democrats who unseated Republicans in the 2018 midterms, represent areas Mr. Trump carried or both. Most of those members, many of whom belong to the centrist Blue Dog or New Democrat coalitions, must win re-election in 2020 for House Democrats to keep their majority.
“You make me the target, but don’t make our Blue Dogs and our New Dems the target in all of this, because we have important fish to fry,” Mrs. Pelosi said, according to a person in the room.
In comments that those in the room saw as aimed at outspoken liberals in the caucus, the California Democrat added: “So, again, you got a complaint? You come and talk to me about it. But do not tweet about our members and expect us to think that that is just OK.”
The quartet of freshmen have succeeded in drawing attention to liberal ideas like the Green New Deal that are shaping the party’s presidential primary. Their response to Pelosi: They aren’t in Washington to count votes.
“Our job isn’t to make sure that we have our colleagues voting a certain way,” Ms. Omar told reporters as she left the closed-door meeting of her colleagues. “And I hope that leadership understands their role and understands what our role is.”
Mrs. Pelosi herself inflamed activists and the left-most wing of her party over the weekend with comments aimed at the House Democrats’ four prominent progressives that appeared to dismiss their influence.
The four women, along with other liberal lawmakers, had wanted the bill to include stronger restrictions on how the Trump administration would spend the money Congress authorizes. When the bill failed in the Senate, Mrs. Pelosi put the Senate-passed border package on the floor for a vote at the urging of moderate members who saw it as the only legislation that could pass.
While the speaker’s comments Wednesday drew swift backlash from activists, inside the Capitol lawmakers and aides supported her remarks, nodding to the outsize attention that the four have received since coming to Congress in January. In interviews, other freshman lawmakers said they appreciate Mrs. Pelosi’s willingness to take the heat for opposing impeachment of the president and avoiding a vote on Medicare for All, two positions embraced by the party’s left flank.
“I think it was beautiful,” said Rep. Elaine Luria, a Democrat who won a GOP-held seat in Virginia, of the speaker’s remarks Wednesday.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the co-chair of the Progressive Caucus, said the comments felt out of character for Mrs. Pelosi.
“In my experience with her, she’s very respectful,” Ms. Jayapal said of the speaker. “Hopefully, they are talking about this, because I don’t think that that was.”
Some Democratic lawmakers fear those on their party’s left will back primary challengers against them, creating vulnerabilities that Republicans could effectively exploit nationwide. Justice Democrats, a group with close ties to Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, on Wednesday endorsed two women challenging incumbent Democrats, including to Rep. Lacy Clay (D., Mo.).
“It is a replay of the 2010 Tea Party movement for the Democrats,” Mr. Clay said, referring to the wave of further-right challengers to GOP lawmakers during that year’s midterms, leading to considerable infighting within the party’s House majority at the time.
Members of the Progressive Caucus, feeling burned by the border bill, are now threatening to oppose the National Defense Authorization Act if the amendments they are pushing don’t pass, such as lowering the total allocation of military spending from $733 billion, limiting the use of military force and restricting arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
Despite such looming fights, Democrats said they welcomed Mrs. Pelosi’s efforts to corral her caucus in the interests of passing legislation.
“I think those responses are utterly appropriate,” said Rep. Scott Peters (D., Calif.). “It’s about numbers. It’s about the bottom line.”