At a pivotal moment Wednesday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi stood before House Democrats with a lofty message and a stark warning.
The battle-born leader implored her majority, after days of high-profile public infighting, to focus on common goals — including defeating President Donald Trump — and to silence the sniping that threatens their fragile hold on power.
The lengthy closed-door session underscored the broader divisions between her centrist and liberal members — and between Pelosi and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez with her “squad” of star-power freshmen — that are testing party unity and reshaping Democrats ahead of the 2020 election.
“Without that unity, we are playing completely into the hands of the other people,” Pelosi said, according to a person who was in the meeting room but not authorized to talk publicly about the internal discussion.
“We’re a family and we have our moments,” Pelosi told colleagues. “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.”
Then came the very Pelosi-like hammer to those who may want to publicly attack the members who make up her majority: “Think twice,” she said. “Actually, don’t think twice. Think once.”
Ocasio-Cortez arrived late to the session and did not speak, according to a second person who attended the session.
But she didn’t need to. AOC, as she is called, had already delivered her own lengthy pre-buttal to The New Yorker in which she decried the consolidation of power in Congress and urged her party to be bold about their priorities in ways that voters will hear.
“I think we became the party of hemming and hawing and trying to be all things to everybody,” said Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.
“We’re too often afraid of our own values and sticking up for them. … And so one of the things that I wanted to do was to hold a strong line,” she said. “I don’t think we should be afraid of being the party of FDR. I don’t think we should be afraid of being the party of working people.”
The tension between the most powerful Democrat in the country and one of the party’s newest, most liberal members embodies a debate over how best, in style and substance, to defeat Trump and win the next election.
Six months into the House Democrats new majority, the flare-up is now challenging the House agenda and rippling across the campaign trail.
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., the caucus chairman, downplayed the rift after the morning meeting. “It’s all puppies and rainbows,” he told reporters.
One test will come this week on a must-pass defense bill that the White House has threatened to veto. Democrats will be forced to unify to pass the bill on their own, without GOP support. Another test will be former special counsel Robert Mueller’s testimony next week in a high-stakes hearing amid rising calls for Trump’s impeachment.
Pelosi, who has tamped down efforts to start impeachment proceedings in favor of a more methodical approach to confronting the administration, drew applause in Wednesday’s private session. Other lawmakers, some first-term members, including Virginia’s Rep. Abigail Spanberger, who helped flip Republican seats to the Democratic column in 2018, also made the case for playing on the same team and keeping the internal drama private, another person in the room said.
Yet, about the same time, Justice Democrats, a group aligned with Ocasio-Cortez, was sending out notice that it was backing primary challengers to several congressional Democrats ahead of next year’s elections. They’re targeting incumbents in Texas, Missouri and a House committee chairman in New York.
“We want to focus on building this new generation of leadership that actually champions solutions that match the scale, scope and urgency of the crisis we’re facing,” said Alexandra Rojas, the group’s executive director.
It’s “hypocritical,” she said, for Pelosi to make a plea for unity while catering to the views of centrist Democrats over progressives, particularly while refusing to bring forward articles of impeachment against Trump.
Pelosi and Ocasio-Cortez don’t talk to each other much. They haven’t spoken since January. But they’re talking at each other in a power struggle that’s now rippling through the party.
For Pelosi allies, her offhand dismissal in a newspaper interview over the weekend of Ocasio-Cortez and three other liberal first-term lawmakers who opposed a border security package was a necessary comeuppance for “the squad” of newcomers who are trying to push the party leftward.
In the speaker’s world, the foursome — Ocasio-Cortez and Reps. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., and Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich. — lack what Pelosi often calls “the currency of the realm,” the power to turn their high-volume activism into a coalition of votes to pass legislation. The tweets from some of Ocasio-Cortez’s staff against Democrats who supported the bill were seen as out of line.
But for fans of Ocasio-Cortez, including some of her millions of social media followers, Pelosi’s remarks were nothing short of a patronizing slap-back to four women of color who represent the future of the Democratic Party, as well as a stark example of its generational and demographic transition. Their four lonely votes against the bill were portrayed as a principled stand, with more to come.
“To dismiss any member’s force, and particularly these four members who do have a tremendous following in the progressive base, I think is not the best thing,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
The ability to channel the influence of the newcomers into the currency of Congress may determine whether Pelosi, six months into her new majority, continues her steady leadership or loses her firm grip.
Leaving the closed session Wednesday, Pelosi told reporters, “I have no regrets about anything,” she said. “Regrets is not what I do.”