What Happened to Unity?

The Pelosi-AOC feud signals trouble ahead for House Democrats.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi
Photos by Alex Wong/Getty Images and Win McNamee/Getty Images.

It’s a fact of life that the Senate, from time to time, will jam the House of Representatives into passing legislation that its leader considers inferior, if not immoral. This happened under Nancy Pelosi in her first months as speaker in 2007, when she brought Iraq War funding, with limited conditions, to a vote; or later, in 2010, when she had no choice but to pass the Senate’s milder version of the Affordable Care Act. It happened under John Boehner and Paul Ryan. And it just happened under Pelosi, again. In all of these instances, when the speaker recognizes that he or she has little alternative but to accept the Senate’s will and cave, the House majority’s reaction can be a good measure of its health and cohesion.

Each time Boehner or Ryan caved to the Senate, the shrieking from the Republican Party’s hard-liners could be heard from several states away. And now? Since Pelosi caved in late June and put the Senate’s border funding bill up for a vote instead of holding out for further concessions, the House Democratic majority’s projection of unity has completely fizzled. What’s emerged instead more closely resembles a knife fight behind a bar, one that looks all too similar to the dysfunctional House Republican majority that collapsed last November.

When Pelosi, facing no help from Senate Democrats and a revolt from moderates within her own conference, “reluctantly” agreed to put on the floor the $4.6 billion Senate bill—which didn’t include improved standards for treatment in migrant detention facilities, and appropriated more enforcement money to the Defense Department—she exposed the underlying tensions within her caucus. The co-chair of the Progressive Caucus, Rep. Mark Pocan, asked on Twitter, “Since when did the Problem Solvers Caucus”—the group of moderates who demanded a vote on the Senate bill to get a bipartisan accomplishment under their belts before the July Fourth recess—“become the Child Abuse Caucus?” The tweet prompted two freshmen Problem Solvers, Rep. Max Rose and Rep. Dean Phillips, to confront Pocan on the House floor.

“Mark’s tweet just speaks to why everyone hates this place,” Rose told Politico. “He’s just trying to get retweets. That’s all he cares about.”

More than a week after the vote and with new, horrific details from the border facilities coming out every day, the recriminations are still going strong. And now, the speaker and the most prominent left-wing members in the caucus are at the center of the feud.

Freshmen Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib were particularly outspoken in their criticism of the vote on the Senate bill. They—and they alone, among Democrats—hadn’t voted for the more robust House bill a couple of days earlier, but that didn’t stop them from arguing that House Democrats should have fought harder to include elements of it in a final negotiated deal with the Senate.

That’s the sort of thing that drives vote-counters in leadership mad. And in an interview with the New York Times’ Maureen Dowd, Pelosi let them know it with sharp criticism belittling their influence within the majority.

“All these people have their public whatever and their Twitter world,” Pelosi told Dowd. “But they didn’t have any following. They’re four people and that’s how many votes they got.” This isn’t the first time Pelosi has diminished these particular representatives publicly, but her targets aren’t taking the quip so lightly this time. Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff commented that the speaker “is just mad that she got outmaneuvered (again) by Republicans.”

This is a Late-Speaker-Boehner-Era level of acute feistiness within the majority, and all because of a cave on a supplemental spending bill—one for which Sen. Pat Leahy won a fair number of concessions while negotiating in the Senate, a fact that’s been lost post-cave. Surely there will be a superficial effort to patch things up when members return to Washington this week, and pronouncements will again be made about how House Democrats remain unified in working For the People. But the reaction to the first cave is an inauspicious sign for the caves ahead.

And there will be caves ahead. In a partisan environment, House majorities will regularly cave on “must-pass” legislation to fund the government, raise the debt ceiling, or address an emergency. While the House can pass legislation with the majority party alone, the Senate’s 60-vote threshold for breaking filibusters requires it to reach bipartisan deals to ensure something passes. The Senate can always strike a deal between the two parties, pass its legislation on a broad bipartisan basis, and force the House to eat it because the House’s preferred, partisan legislation couldn’t get through the Senate. That’s exactly what happened in this case: Senate Democrats struck a compromise with Republicans on a bill and passed it 84 to 8, leaving House Democrats on their own. This is not a new dynamic—when he was Senate minority leader and Barack Obama was president, Mitch McConnell left John Boehner hanging seemingly every few hours. If House Democrats are tearing each other to shreds over elements of border funding in a $4.6 billion emergency bill, it’s not a good sign for how they’ll treat the compromises in an annual DHS spending bill costing more than 10 times that.

House Democrats have control over one body of Congress, while Republicans control both the Senate and the White House. This means they’re going to lose fights, including fights over issues that have captured and animated their base. That the main progressive and moderate blocs are at each other’s throats, while the most famous individual progressives and the speaker fight in public after the first big loss, does not instill great confidence about their ability to digest those losses yet to come.