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Pelosi Struggles to Hold Fractious US House Democrats Together

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Democrat-California) arrives for a House Democratic caucus meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, July 10, 2019.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is running out of time to wrangle with an increasingly unruly caucus, seeking to unite Democrats at odds over oversight of the Trump Administration and several key bills impacting defense spending and immigration enforcement.

The U.S. House of Representatives is set to recess for the annual extended summer district working session beginning Friday July 26. That timeline gives the House Democratic leadership just three weeks to pass the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), as well as a number of new immigration bills addressing progressive Democrats’ concerns about the humanitarian crisis at the southern border.

Immigration spending sparked a fight between Pelosi and a faction of her party last month. Four progressive members of the Democratic caucus – Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashia Tlaib of Michigan – voted against the version of the bill passed by the U.S. Senate, citing concerns the $4.6 billion aid package enabled harsh treatment of immigrants by border control agents and officials.

The House speaker renewed progressives’ frustrations when she downplayed the influence of the four freshman members of Congress who voted against the bill in a New York Times interview published Saturday.

“All these people have their public whatever and their Twitter world,” Pelosi was quoted as saying. “But they didn’t have any following. They’re four people and that’s how many votes they got.”

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (Democrat-New York) asks a question during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, July 10, 2019.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (Democrat-New York) asks a question during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, July 10, 2019.

Ocasio-Cortez declined reporter questions when asked about the controversy earlier Wednesday. Over the weekend, she tweeted, “That public “whatever” is called public sentiment. And wielding the power to shift it is how we actually achieve meaningful change in this country.”

When asked about Ocasio-Cortez's comments, Pelosi told reporters Wednesday, "I have no regrets about anything.”

“Regrets is not what I do,” she said.

Pelosi, the 79-year-old Californian, faced concerns about her age and ability to connect with the concerns of her caucus prior to her election as speaker earlier this year. The public battle with freshman members of her caucus who represent a younger, more diverse electorate shows cracks in Democratic messaging ahead of the 2020 presidential and congressional campaign.

Still, Democratic leaders have found areas of agreement, including on the National Defense Authorization Act, the $733 billion defense policy bill.

Ahead of the vote for the NDAA, Democratic leadership emphasized party unity coming out of a caucus meeting Wednesday.

“This is without a doubt the most progressive NDAA that has ever come before the caucus,” said Rep. David Cicilline, Chair of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee (DPCC). “We all recognize that we have a broad range of views in our caucus and that’s one of our great strengths.”

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told reporters Wednesday Democrats are doing what they can to pass legislation in a divided government.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Md.(L) arrives for a House Democratic caucus meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, July 10, 2019.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Md.(L) arrives for a House Democratic caucus meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, July 10, 2019.

“Nobody rolled over,” Hoyer said of the border security funding vote last month, noting that Senate Democrats, including Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, voted for it. “It was a good bill, simply not as good as ours.” The Maryland Democrat added that the newly introduced immigration bills close that gap, “setting standards for humanitarian treatment of people coming to our borders, seeking asylum.”

Hoyer said he anticipates vigorous debate over the NDAA, that is set for a vote later this week.

“We’re going to pass the defense bill and that’s a tough bill for us to pass because there’s some strong feelings on that. But I think there’s also a realization of the position we’re in – we don’t have the Senate, you don’t have the White House. We need to pass things.”

But progressives could use the bill to try yet again to push the moderate Democratic leadership to the left, withholding defense spending money from the Trump administration and pushing for measures providing greater Congressional oversight over a potential U.S. conflict with Iran.

The Congressional Progressive Caucus met late Tuesday to discuss their strategy heading into the vote but has not yet staked an official position.

Impeachment talk

Pelosi faces another brewing battle next week, when the open testimony of former Special Counsel Robert Mueller before two House panels will likely revive House Democrats’ calls for Pelosi to initiate impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump. To date, more than 80 House Democrats and one unaffiliated House member have stated publicly that they support opening an impeachment inquiry.

The top Democratic lawmaker has tamped down calls for impeachment, emphasizing the need to allow multiple House committee investigations into Trump’s finances, foreign ties and conflict of interest issues to run their course. In a letter Monday to colleagues, Pelosi did tell members to expect a vote “soon” holding Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt for ignoring subpoenas relating to the administration’s attempts to add a citizenship question to the U.S. Census.

The House Judiciary Committee will also step up its investigation Thursday, when members are expected to authorize subpoenas to 12 Mueller report witnesses, including former Trump administration attorney general Jeff Sessions, Trump adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner and former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. The effort – which is expected to meet significant White House resistance – could provide House Democrats with key information about White House efforts to interfere with the Russia probe.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff told reporters Wednesday he expected the committee hearing to go on next week despite Attorney General William Barr saying he wouldn’t object to Mueller not testifying.

“He was only too happy to mislead the country and I’m sure he would be thrilled if his misrepresentations were the last word,” Schiff said of Barr.

Legislative full plate

House Republicans also pushed Pelosi on their priorities, calling on her to bring up ratification of the United States-Mexico-Canada trade agreement (USMCA) before the break.

“I think if the USMCA comes to the floor, it will pass,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy told reporters Wednesday. “That all hinges on the speaker. It would be important to pass this before we left for the August break.”

When the House comes back in session in September, there will be just three weeks left until the end of the fiscal year, setting up the prospect of yet another budget showdown. The battle over government funding partially shut down the U.S. government for a record 35 days early this year.