By Jesse Byrnes
Democrats are battling one another offstage ahead of the party’s first 2016 debate, with a prominent lawmaker engaged in a fierce war of words with the party chairman.
Rep. Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardEx-DNC official: I’m ‘neutral’ in Wasserman Schultz’s race Wasserman Schultz faces million-dollar primary challenger Overnight Defense: House panel approves 0B defense bill MORE (D-Hawaii), a vice chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), is all but calling DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz a liar as the two publicly battle over whether Gabbard was disinvited from Tuesday night’s debate.
“It's not surprising to me that she is saying things that aren't true,” she said of her House colleague during an appearance Tuesday on MSNBC's "Andrea Mitchell Reports."
Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) fired back in her own round of interviews. Asked on the same MSNBC program whether she told Gabbard not to come to the debate, she replied, “that is simply not the case.”
“What we said, as my staff communicated to her staff, is that she needed to focus on the issues and make a commitment to do that, and in fact, she said yesterday in a news interview that if she came, she would be a distraction and so she chose not to come,” Wasserman Schultz said.
In a separate interview on CNN, Wasserman Schultz said Gabbard was focused on “process and on herself” instead of on the party’s “great candidates.”
The public spat threatens to be embarrassing distraction for Democrats, and it could spill over into Tuesday night’s debate.
One of the candidates on the stage, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, has repeatedly denounced the debate schedule as “rigged” and accused the DNC of tilting the process in favor of front-runner Hillary Clinton.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the lead challenger to Clinton in the polls, has been less strident in his criticism, but said Democrats are “dead wrong” to limit the number of debates.
“I think this country benefits, all people benefit, democracy benefits, when we have debates, and I want to see more of them,” Sanders said in August. “I think that debates are a good thing."
Wasserman Schultz appeared to slam the door on changing the debate schedule in early September, telling reporters: “We’re not changing the process. We’re having six debates.”
“Every day someone is going to say something about my intentions, but I have a party to run,” she said. “... I’ll make decisions that will make some people happy and some people unhappy. I can’t worry about that.”
But Gabbard — an up-and-coming Democrat who has vocally criticized President Obama’s strategy against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) — has kept up the drumbeat of criticism.
For weeks, the Hawaii Democrat has called for an expansion of the debate schedule and for dropping a policy that bars the candidates from participating in unsanctioned events.
Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, another DNC chairman, authored a joint Facebook post with Gabbard last month calling the debate schedule a “mistake.”
On Tuesday, during an interview on CNN, Gabbard said she wasn't consulted about the debate criteria despite her position with the DNC.
Wasserman Schultz “claimed a month ago that she had spoken with, communicated and consulted with officers of the DNC about her decision to limit debates to six” and about the exclusion clause, Gabbard said.
“That never occurred. I can tell you, speaking for myself, that I didn't find out her decision until after the fact. There was no consultation and no communication,” Gabbard said.
Wasserman Schultz rejected that assertion on CNN, saying, “there were many people, including officers," who were consulted. She accused Gabbard of "quibbling about process.”
“We are a big tent party and welcome those opinions. But this debate and every debate going forward is about the issues,” she said.