Earlier this week the Democrats now running the House of Representatives strutted their stuff with passage of a bill aiming at the ancient liberal target of the gun background check “loophole” for private sales. It was passed by a 240-190 margin on what was basically a party-line vote. But before that vote, Republicans offered an unexpected “motion to recommit” the bill to add language instructing law enforcement officials to notify ICE if an “illegal immigrant” attempted to buy a gun. Twenty-six Democrats voted with Republicans in favor of that motion, and embarrassed House leaders added the language as an amendment to keep the bill from dying then and there.
Subsequently House Democrats met to discuss the incident (the second successful MTR maneuver by Republicans in the brief period since Nancy Pelosi took the gavel), amid some talk of amending the House rules either to eliminate MTRs or provide members with more time to consider them. But according to the Washington Post, recriminations broke out between members angry at the defections on the ICE vote, and defectors angry that Democrats from safer districts weren’t sufficiently sensitive to their political needs.
In a closed-door session, a frustrated Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) lashed out at about two dozen moderates and pressured them to get on board. “We are either a team or we’re not, and we have to make that decision,” Pelosi said, according to two people present but not authorized to discuss the remarks publicly.
Pelosi, according to the Post, focused much of her frustration on congressional veterans. But interestingly enough, the conflict was exemplified by an unhappy exchange between two House freshman from very different political environments:
[Alexandria] Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), the unquestioned media superstar of the freshman class, upped the ante, admonishing the moderates and indicating she would help liberal activists unseat them in the 2020 election.
Corbin Trent, a spokesman for Ocasio-Cortez, said she told her colleagues that Democrats who side with Republicans “are putting themselves on a list.”
… Rep. Xochitl Torres Small (N.M.) — reacted sharply to Ocasio-Cortez’s comments and rose to urge her colleagues to respect the political reality of representing a swing district, according to multiple people present.
Ocasio-Cortez, of course, unseated a top member of the House Democratic leadership in a primary; her district is not competitive in general elections. Torres Small won one of the closest general election contests in the country.
But this wasn’t just a standard-brand left-versus-center ideological clash. AOC made a rather important counterpoint about the quandary the Republican amendment placed her and like-minded Democrats in, according to her spokesman Corbin Trent:
“She said that when activists ask her why she had to vote for a gun safety bill that also further empowers an agency that forcibly injects kids with psychotropic drugs, they’re going to want a list of names and she’s going to give it to them,” Trent said, referring to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The Post interpreted this reference to a “list” as a threat to support primary challenges to the moderates. Whether or not that’s what AOC intended, there’s no question some of her House colleagues fear that she’ll help do to them what she did to Joe Crowley in her own insurgent primary challenge last year. And it infuriates those in swing districts that they might have to fight a two-front war to win reelection.
These tensions create some serious problems for Nancy Pelosi, who must cater to every faction in her caucus. One option for her is simply to impose party discipline and insist moderates bite the bullet on cleverly designed Republican poison-pill amendments. As she and others pointed out in the caucus meeting, Republicans managed to vote down similar Democratic gambits routinely when they controlled the House, adopting a “just say no” party line on all procedural motions from the other side of the aisle.
Alternatively, Pelosi may have to rethink how much value there really is for her caucus and party in “messaging” bills like the gun measure, which is about as likely to be considered in the Republican-controlled Senate as a bill to double Planned Parenthood’s funding. A symbolic gesture toward an important if presently unachievable goal like better gun regulation is a lot more effective if Democrats can agree in advance not to let themselves get distracted by Republican hijinks. The last thing they need is a public “struggle for the soul of the Democratic Party,” with media hounds eagerly feeding on every morsel of conflict.