Dems struggle to unify after GOP embarrasses them on procedure

House Democratic leaders are scrambling for a way to unite their splintered caucus following a series of embarrassing votes that have empowered the minority Republicans and escalated tensions among the top party brass.

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiPelosi, Dems plot strategy after end of Mueller probe Coons after Russia probe: House Dems need to use power in 'focused and responsible way' Trump, Congress brace for Mueller findings MORE (D-Calif.) on Thursday urged her troops to oppose the Republicans’ procedural motions as a blanket policy, regardless of their substance, but faced resistance from some moderates who want the leeway to vote with local concerns in mind.

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“Vote 'no.' Just vote 'no,' because the fact is a vote 'yes' is to give leverage to the other side, to surrender the leverage on the floor of the House,” Pelosi told reporters in the Capitol, relaying the message she gave to Democrats at a closed-door meeting.

Pelosi’s plea follows an embarrassing hiccup on Wednesday during a vote on a key gun reform bill to require universal background checks.

More than two dozen Democrats, mostly freshmen from swing districts, crossed the aisle to help Republicans pass a motion to recommit (MTR) — a parliamentary proposal released at the last minute — to notify Immigration and Customs Enforcement if a person in the country illegally tries to buy a gun.

The surprise GOP victory forced Democrats to endorse an immigration policy most oppose to ensure passage of their long-sought background check bill.

At a closed-door Thursday meeting of the Democratic whip team in the Capitol basement, Pelosi and a number of rank-and-file members — including prominent freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezOvernight Energy: Interior reverses decision at heart of Zinke criminal probe | Dem divisions deepen over approach to climate change | GM to add 400 workers to build electric cars 'Washington Monthly' editor says diversity on Capitol Hill starts with interns Why is my party prioritizing an extreme environmental agenda? MORE (D-N.Y.) — implored their colleagues to reject the GOP procedural gambits, regardless of how tough it might seem to vote against them.

But a number of moderate Democrats are vowing to vote however they see fit.

“I vote my district,” Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.), who voted in favor of the GOP’s measure, told The Hill on Thursday.

Freshman Rep. Jefferson Van Drew (D-N.J.) also held firm.

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“I always feel responsible for what I vote for,” said Van Drew, who voted against his party on the GOP measure. “And if I believe something makes sense I'll vote for it; if I think it doesn't make sense, I won't vote for it — if it's an MTR or anything else.”

Democrats say they get where lawmakers like Van Drew are coming from. But they also say their votes are putting the rest of the party in a bad position.

“We certainly understand the situation that the new members feel, and we're just trying to remind them this is a procedural tool of the minority,” Rep. Katherine ClarkKatherine Marlea ClarkChances of passing Dem budget are '50-50,' says chairman House to vote Thursday on anti-Semitism resolution Dems struggle to unify after GOP embarrasses them on procedure MORE (D-Mass.), vice chairwoman of the House Democratic Caucus, said leaving the Thursday meeting. “They have to remember that … the very essence of it is to put them in awkward positions.”

The loss on Wednesday was particularly painful because it was a surprise and because it came on gun control legislation that’s a cornerstone of the Democratic legislative agenda.

Ocasio-Cortez told her colleagues that she had to explain what unfolded on the floor to the activists seated in the visitors’ gallery, according to a lawmaker in the room.

“These MTRs, they're designed to be essentially the House version of Trump's agenda when it comes to dividing people,” Ocasio-Cortez said after the meeting. “They force a zero-sum situation where, in order to get my thing, I have to hurt another person.

“I think it's something that we need to anticipate, and I think it is something we need to be united against.”

A leadership split

For the Democrats, the split starts at the very top. Pelosi has built a long-earned reputation for uniting her caucus against such procedural maneuvers, which she deems “gotcha” votes. But her top lieutenants — House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerOvernight Defense: Top Marine warns border deployment could hurt readiness | McSally aims for sexual assault reforms in defense bill | House to vote on measure opposing transgender ban | New warning over F-35 sale to Turkey House Dems unveil measure to reject anti-Israel boycotts House to vote on measure opposing transgender military ban MORE (Md.) and Majority Whip James Clyburn (S.C.) — want to give freshmen and other vulnerable lawmakers the freedom to break with the party on tough votes.

“I think we suffer from potentially a lack of consistency in terms of the message that members are getting,” said Rep. Dan KildeeDaniel (Dan) Timothy KildeeOn The Money: Trump issues emergency order grounding Boeing 737 Max jets | Senate talks over emergency resolution collapse | Progressives seek defense freeze in budget talks Dem rep: Congress may need to subpoena Boeing Trump issues emergency order grounding Boeing 737 Max jets MORE (D-Mich.), a chief deputy whip. “I think that's a problem.”

Democrats discussed potentially changing House rules to require more advance notice of the legislative text for motions to recommit. But top leaders made no decision on Thursday and, for now, are simply encouraging the rank-and-file to fall in line.

Leadership has also taken some steps to help manage the moderates inclined to vote for the motions. Reps. Stephanie MurphyStephanie MurphyBooker takes early lead in 2020 endorsements Koch-backed group pushes for new limits on Trump's tariff authority Gay Florida teen kicked out of home lands internship with Dem congresswoman MORE (D-Fla.) and Scott PetersScott H. Peters House Budget Dem slams Trump's budget as 'a Christmas wish list' rather than 'set of priorities' California Dem says state is 'almost a different country politically' Dems struggle to unify after GOP embarrasses them on procedure MORE (D-Calif.) have been tasked in recent weeks with helping their respective Blue Dog and New Democrat coalition members understand the procedure and content of the motions while reporting back to the whip team, according to a senior Democratic aide.

Clyburn said the caucus is still having discussions and is not yet seriously entertaining a rules change.

“Not yet, not yet,” he said.

Pelosi suggested that the newly created Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress could consider changes to motions to recommit.

“I think that’s an appropriate place for some of that discussion to take place. In the meantime, vote 'no,' ” Pelosi said.

Republicans have twice won passage of motions to recommit this year. The obscure measures allow the minority party one last opportunity to change legislation before its final passage. The minority party can spring it on the majority at the last minute with little to no advance notice of a specific amendment.

“There's a good deal of frustration over this in the caucus,” said Rep. Jan SchakowskyJanice (Jan) Danoff SchakowskyDems seek to stifle primary challenges to incumbents Hillicon Valley: EU hits Google with .7 billion antitrust fine | GOP steps up attack over tech bias claims | Dems ask FTC for budget wishlist | Justices punt on Google privacy settlement Dems ask FTC if it needs more money to protect privacy MORE (D-Ill.).

Republicans cried foul over the possibility of a rules change to one of the few tools they have at their disposal in the minority.

Speaking to reporters, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyHouse leaders need to modernize Congress for the sake of America Overnight Energy: McConnell tees up vote on Green New Deal | Centrist Dems pitch alternative to plan | House Republican likens Green New Deal to genocide | Coca-Cola reveals it uses 3M tons of plastic every year House GOP lawmaker says Green New Deal is like genocide MORE (R-Calif.) on Thursday accused Democrats of trying to restrict minority party rights — dating back to 1909 — once they took back the majority.

“Less than 60 days into the new majority, they want to silence the minority. That’s wrong,” McCarthy said.

GOP to attack no matter what

Some Democrats in the whip meeting argued that Republicans will attack vulnerable members anyway, no matter how many times they vote for the procedural motions to avoid unflattering campaign ads, according to lawmakers in the room.

“People are going to run ads whether they cast tough votes or not,” said Rep. John YarmuthJohn Allen YarmuthSenate GOP budget ignores Trump, cuts defense The politics and practicalities of impeachment Progressives seek defense freeze in budget talks MORE (D-Ky.). “The point was made in there that you've got to understand the cost of that to the caucus itself, and how that weakens the caucus.”

But others are sympathetic to colleagues in competitive districts who worry about tough votes.

“My personal opinion is that procedure votes, parties usually stick with each other on procedure votes. But I do have an understanding of members from vulnerable districts and they have to vote their district,” said centrist Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas).

Democrats used motions to recommit to try to change bills when they were in the minority, but their efforts were unsuccessful since Republicans viewed those votes as merely procedural.

But Republicans have repeatedly turned them into efforts to force tough votes for vulnerable Democrats. Earlier this month, they successfully added an amendment condemning anti-Semitism to a resolution to withdraw U.S. support for the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen.

Republicans pushed the anti-Semitism measure in the aftermath of freshman Rep. Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarTrump to speak to GOP Jewish group amid anti-Semitism spat with Dems Dems seek to stifle primary challenges to incumbents Trump on 2020 Dems skipping AIPAC: 'I think they're anti-Jewish' MORE (D-Minn.) facing bipartisan backlash for suggesting that U.S. lawmakers defending Israel are motivated by money.

But the GOP’s success with the motion to recommit on the Yemen resolution ended up leading to more problems. The Senate parliamentarian ruled that the resolution was no longer “privileged” because of the anti-Semitism language was deemed non-germane, meaning that supporters cannot force a vote in the upper chamber. They will instead have to reintroduce a new resolution and attempt a do-over.

Democrats faced another GOP motion on Thursday to their second gun reform bill of the week, which would lengthen the review period for background checks. Current law allows a firearm sale to proceed if a background check hasn't been completed within three days.

The legislation is meant as a response to the 2015 shooting at a historic black church in Charleston, S.C., in which the gunman, Dylann Roof, would have failed a background check had an examiner received notice that he had been previously arrested for drug possession.

Republicans offered a motion to recommit that would still allow gun transfers to victims of domestic violence after three days. But Democrats easily defeated it after an emotional speech from Rep. Debbie DingellDeborah (Debbie) Ann DingellMichigan lawmakers ask ICE to stop deportation of Mexican journalist Dem lawmakers unveil Journalist Protection Act amid Trump attacks on media The Hill's 12:30 Report: Cohen back on the hot seat MORE (D-Mich.), who described the domestic violence between her parents.

“All of us were scared to death about her gun and my father's gun! We had two guns to worry about!" Dingell said.

Only two of the 26 Democrats who voted for Wednesday’s motion did so again on Thursday: Van Drew and Rep. Collin PetersonCollin Clark PetersonThe 31 Trump districts that will determine the next House majority Democrats, Trump battle over 75 'pivot' counties in Midwest Dems struggle to unify after GOP embarrasses them on procedure MORE (Minn.).

Scott Wong contributed.