A meeting of House Democrats flared up on Tuesday over the increasingly thorny issue of whether a pregnant member should be allowed to vote from afar in the party's leadership elections this week.
Democratic leaders, including Rep. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), have denied a request from Rep. Tammy Duckworth (Ill.), who lost both of her legs in the Iraq War, to waive the Democratic rule barring proxy votes. Duckworth, 46, is in the last stages of a pregnancy and her doctor won't allow her to travel back to Washington to vote in person.
“A lot of people felt that Tammy's patriotism and sacrifice to this country warrants special consideration. And I'm one of those people who think it's hard to make an argument that it does not require special consideration,” Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) said afterward. “She's given parts of her body for her country, and if it came to a vote, I would vote to give her a proxy.”
Thompson said the debate was fueled by “strong feelings on both sides.”
“When Democrats take a position, we're passionate about it,” he said. “This is one of those issues where there's a lot of passion on both sides.”
Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a civil rights icon who holds tremendous sway over the caucus on such issues, gave an impassioned speech in favor of allowing Duckworth a proxy vote, arguing it's a matter of simple justice, according to a number of lawmakers in the room.
Democratic leaders, however, view the issue differently. On Monday, Pelosi argued that allowing Duckworth to vote by proxy could open the floodgates to other members requesting similar exceptions in the future.
“The fact is that we don't know what's going on in the lives of many people,” Pelosi told reporters on Monday. “You're going to establish a situation where we're going to determine who has a note from the doctor that's valid or not. It's really a place we shouldn't go.”
Behind closed doors, many Democrats suspect Pelosi's denial could be related to her support for Rep. Anna Eshoo (D), a close friend and fellow Californian, in her race against Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) for the ranking member position on the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee.
That race is expected to be tight — both sides claim to have the numbers to win — and Duckworth had sided with Pallone.
“That's the root of all of this,” Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) said as he left Tuesday's meeting.
Then there's the broader issue of the Democrats' messaging strategy. Party leaders, particularly Pelosi, have spent years trying to highlight the distinctions between the Democrats and Republicans when it comes to issues of women's empowerment. With that in mind, some fear Pelosi's move to deny a proxy vote for a pregnant member undercuts the message that Democrats are the party of working women, a charge Pelosi rejects.
“It's not to be confused with not having family and medical leave,” Pelosi said Monday.
A number of rank-and-file members say the Democrats would be wise to heed Pelosi's warning of a slippery slope.
Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) said that, during Tuesday's debate, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) had a funeral and “wanted that to be considered.”
“And then someone else came up with surgery, and it became easier, I thought, for them to keep the rule rather than select which person deserved a waiver, if any,” Rangel said. “The other circumstances appear to be exceptional to them. A funeral's a funeral.”
The Democratic Steering and Policy Committee meets Tuesday afternoon to vote on the Pallone-Eshoo race, with a deciding vote of the full caucus expected Wednesday.
With time running short, many expect the issue — so radioactive this week — will simply fizzle out.
“It's either this, or I don't think we'll deal with the proxy thing again,” Thompson said.