WASHINGTON — Immigration was supposed to be a unifying issue for the Democrats, one where they could easily seize the moral authority over the president and party putting kids in cages.
Instead, this deeply emotional policy area is driving a very public wedge between newly elected progressives and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
On Tuesday, in a closed-door meeting with House Democrats, Pelosi (D-Calif.) tore into the party’s four loudest, newest and most nationally popular progressive females — Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) — for using social media to voice their frustrations with Democratic leaders for helping pass a $4.6 billion emergency border funding package without even the new restrictions House progressives had demanded.
“I’m starting to get confused about who’s setting the agenda and who’s leading the majority in the House,” Rep. Omar told VICE News. “I want to make sure that we have a clear understanding that we were put in the majority for a purpose: that is, to resist the detrimental policies that this administration is putting forth and insist on setting the correct course for this country.”
On Thursday, Pelosi tried to contain the damage.
“I said what I’m going to say on the subject,” the speaker told reporters at the Capitol. “What I said in the caucus yesterday got an overwhelming response from our members, because they know what the facts are and what we responded to. We respect the values of every member of our caucus.”
After the press conference, VICE News asked Pelosi if she fears this now-public feud will distract from her party’s attempt to rein in Trump’s heavy handed immigration policy.
“No. I don’t,” Pelosi replied, but she refused to elaborate.
Need to “resist”
Omar and the other three young freshman — who have dubbed themselves “the squad” — aren’t backing down, and that’s frustrating more senior centrists who are worried that the progressive purity test could get them challenged in their own primaries.
That’s partly why the moderate wing of the party is fully behind Pelosi.
“She’s got to make sure that we stay united and she doesn’t want one group, one sector of a party to be attacking the other sector,” Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) told VICE News in the basement of the Capitol. “I vote a particular way, I never tell my progressive friends, ‘Oh, I don’t like your vote.’ I’ve never said that. Because I respect where they’re from and I think people need to respect where members are from, their background or their district itself. So I stand with Pelosi. She’s doing the right thing.”
Just this week, after helping Ocasio-Cortez oust longtime Pelosi lieutenant, Joe Crowley, in the last election, the progressive group Justice Democrats has another group of centrist Democrats in their sights. The group announced it’s getting behind pro-choice progressive Marie Newman, who is challenging anti-abortion incumbant Rep. Daniel Lipinski (D-Ill.), and Black Lives Matter activist Cori Bush, who is taking on Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.).
Veteran lawmakers are taking note, and they think Pelosi is steering the whole party down the right path.
“The goal here is keeping the majority in the House and winning the presidency in 2020.”
“The goal here is keeping the majority in the House and winning the presidency in 2020. Anything that falls short of that goal is not in line of what we’re trying to do here,” said Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.). “She’s a great leader. She knows what got us here and what’s gonna keep us here. She’s got her prize on a big big big picture that other folks may not have their eyes on.”
What progressives want
With the dust up over immigration becoming a distraction, Pelosi agreed to hold votes soon on a standalone border bill that includes the provisions that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wouldn’t even entertain in the emergency border funding package, like setting minimum health standards for migrants in U.S. custody, a three month limit for children in so-called influx shelters and allowing members of Congress to access border facilities without prior warning.
While McConnell is unlikely to ever let a standalone immigration bill hit the Senate floor, the play by Pelosi is enough for many Democrats who want to be able to show their voters that they tried to do something to alleviate the crisis.
“We have a responsibility to pass legislation that will solve the problem and then it’s incumbent upon the Senate to do the same,” Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) said. “And the American people are going to make sure their voices are heard. We can’t make Mitch McConnell do it, but the American people can.”
While Pelosi’s decision to send McConnell yet another immigration reform proposal will highlight the contrasts between the two parties ahead of next year’s elections, that’s not good enough for these restive progressives who are demanding House Democratic leaders act boldly and aggressively. And with Pelosi having just rubber-stamped McConnell and Trump’s $4.6 billion emergency aid package, these freshmen lawmakers see this new effort as a smokescreen.
“What we did wasn’t in line with our priorities,” Rep. Omar said. “We cosigned on a cruel policy and threw more money to make sure that we’re giving noodles and crackers and not addressing the kind of disastrous situation some of these children are being put in.”
Cover: U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from California, right, and Representative Ilhan Omar, a Democrat from Minnesota, smile during a news conference in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Friday, March 8, 2019. (Photo: Alex Edelman/Bloomberg via Getty Images)