LEESBURG, Virginia—“You guys have it all wrong,” Nancy Pelosi told reporters at the end of her press conference Thursday morning, mostly unprompted, on the second day of the House Democratic retreat at a northern Virginia resort. “We have such a unified [caucus]. If it serves your purpose to say we’re seething, you’re on the wrong track. But you can waste your time on that, while we go forward with what we are going to do with the American people. Good morning.”
And a good morning to you too!
The retreat is technically called the 2019 Issues Conference, but it’s a retreat. It’s at a resort. Members eat and drink, and some bring their families; they’re given much of Thursday afternoon free for trivia or cooking demonstrations or golf. They do yoga. There are issue-based panels and speeches from the likes of former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and Federal Reserve Board Chair Jay Powell. But there was also a conversation on Wednesday night with John Legend and Chrissy Teigen, the latter of whom analogized President Donald Trump’s immigration fearmongering to the plot of the M. Night Shyamalan film The Village and encouraged Democratic women to say “fuck you” more often. (Both good points.)
The retreat was originally scheduled for mid-February, when Pelosi’s line about complete harmony and unity within the caucus might have been more believable. Then, Democrats and Pelosi were just coming off a resounding triumph over Trump’s demand for, and shutdown over, a border wall. The retreat was delayed as leaders put the finishing touches on a bill to fund the government through September.
Since then, though, the new majority, which has more conservative Blue Dogs and more socialists, along with vocal freshman members with large social media followings who aren’t afraid to clash with senior members, has begun to grind along its fault lines. Democrats have allowed Republicans to split them with gimmicky procedural votes, disrupting their messaging on long-sought legislative priorities. They lost a week melting down over how to address Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar’s comments that some within the caucus perceived as anti-Semitic. And the day before the retreat—what timing!—broad disagreements on spending levels between the party’s conservative and progressive flanks scuttled a plan to pass a budget bill.
Democratic leaders, of course, vigorously deny that any of this is a problem.
“We’ve had 100 days of success,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said at the retreat’s opening press conference on Wednesday, “and yesterday was no exception.” Though Democrats faced a revolt over the budget bill, they were able to sneak a provision into a separate procedural vote that allowed the budget process to keep moving forward. Still, it was not a great outcome, as showing the ability to actually pass their preferred budget blueprint would have improved House Democrats’ standing in the eventual, bipartisan talks between the House and Senate later this year. The scrapped plan, which gave Blue Dogs angst over its big spending and progressives angst over its inadequate spending, was the sort of mess—not the end of the world, but not an expert cat-herding operation either—that Pelosi so often would have mocked as “amateur hour” during the speakerships of John Boehner or Paul Ryan.
“We had a victory yesterday,” Hoyer said, “and we’re going to have future victories for the people.” This tone was a little different from what Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmouth had told reporters on Tuesday morning as his bill was taking on water: “We have to figure out whether we’re going to be able to govern.”
New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, the caucus chairman and No. 5 House Democrat, was at least willing to concede that the first 100 days of governance had not been literally perfect.
“House Democrats are not a country club caucus,” Jeffries told reporters Thursday. “We are a heterogeneous caucus that represents the gorgeous mosaic of the American people across every single measure, including race, gender, ideology, and region. … Within that context, there are going to be robust debates.”
Those debates between wings of the party, however, have so far not devolved into the toxic situation frequently on display in the past few years of the House Republican conference, when there was widespread distrust, and plenty of badmouthing, between moderates and the conservative Freedom Caucus. The Democrats feel an obligation as they proceed with their agenda to keep it together, as they’re supposed to be the party that believes in government.
One of the Democrats’ next items on the checklist is the Raise the Wage Act, which would raise the federal minimum wage to $15. Some more moderate New Democrats, however, have put forward an alternative bill that would tie the federal increase to regional costs of living. Leaders put together a panel at the retreat whose participants tried to explain that $15-an-hour wouldn’t cripple business. Unfortunately, much of the target audience for that panel was at a separate panel about the modernization of Congress, helmed by the New Democrats’ chairman, Washington Rep. Derek Kilmer.
Similar differences could emerge on other pending agenda items, like an infrastructure bill. Pelosi and the Progressive Caucus have been talking about putting together a bill in the trillions. But that might be too high for New Democrats, Blue Dogs, and, well, Republicans, if Trump doesn’t get on board. And that’s another question to which no one could offer a clear answer at the retreat: Will bills on the two main policy areas where’s there’s opportunity for bipartisanship—lowering the cost of prescription drugs and infrastructure—be drafted to get through a Republican Senate and White House, or drafted to send a Democratic message?
The retreat, though, wasn’t about making decisions on any hard policy choices. It was a reset, allowing members to bond and to remember what keeps them together. Just about every House Democrat describes the caucus’s diversity—in race, gender, geography, age, religion, ideology, and sexual orientation—as its strength. As Pelosi often puts it, and did again at this retreat, “our diversity is our strength, our unity is our power.” The first 100 days of the House Democratic majority, though, have shown that, left unmanaged, the diversity is capable of undermining the unity.
“I’m informed by the fact that I’m the youngest of seven children, and I am so used to factions and fighting,” Pennsylvania Rep. Madeleine Dean told reporters on Thursday afternoon. “But at the end of the day, you’re still all stuck together, and you can either move this thing forward or you can hold it back.”
Support our independent journalism
Readers like you make our work possible. Help us continue to provide the reporting, commentary and criticism you won’t find anywhere else.Join Slate Plus