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 PelosiCNN's Axelrod says impeachment didn't come up until 80 minutes into focus group On The Money — Presented by Wells Fargo — Social Security emerges as flash point in Biden-Sanders fight | Dems urge Supreme Court to save consumer agency | Trump to sign USMCA next week Veronica Escobar to give Spanish-language response to Trump State of the Union address 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-CortezImpeachment throws curveball in Iowa to sidelined senators Sanders says it's 'disappointing' he's not on campaign trail in Iowa The Hill's Campaign Report: Ten days to Iowa 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 ClarkSanders, Warren battle for progressive endorsements Democrats ramp up calls for war powers vote after Iran strike Nearly all Democrats expected to back articles of impeachment 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 HoyerThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump trial begins with clash over rules House revives agenda after impeachment storm House poised to hand impeachment articles to Senate 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 KildeePelosi digs in on impeachment rules fight Pelosi faces decision on articles of impeachment Trump shocks, earns GOP rebukes with Dingell remarks 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 MurphySan Francisco mayor endorses Bloomberg Rep. Bobby Rush endorses Bloomberg's White House bid Sanders, Warren battle for progressive endorsements MORE (D-Fla.) and Scott PetersScott H. PetersOvernight Energy: Republicans eye top spot on Natural Resources panel | GOP lawmakers push back on bill to make greener refrigerators, air conditioners | Green groups sue Trump over California fracking plans Republicans push back on bipartisan bill to make greener refrigerators, air conditioners Five environmental fights to watch in 2020 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 SchakowskyHouse Democrats may call new impeachment witnesses if Senate doesn't Lawmaker calls for hearing into MLB cheating scandal Big Pharma looks to stem losses after trade deal defeat 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 McCarthyThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump trial begins with clashes, concessions Cheney's decision not to run for Senate sparks Speaker chatter Mark Mellman: A failure of GOP leadership 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 YarmuthBlue Dogs push Democrats to pass budget Democrats don't expect to do 2020 budget Trump shocks, earns GOP rebukes with Dingell remarks 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 OmarSanders wants one-on-one fight with Biden Jayapal: 'We will end up with another Donald Trump' if the US doesn't elect a progressive Media's selective outrage exposed in McSally-Raju kerfuffle 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 DingellMaking waves to protect America's waters Trump suggests LBJ is in hell: 'He's probably looking down — or looking up' 10 controversies that rocked the Trump White House in 2019 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 Hill's Morning Report - Dems to lay out impeachment case to senators next week House delivers impeachment articles to Senate Overnight Defense: Foreign policy takes center stage at Democratic debate | House delivers impeachment articles to Senate | Dems vow to force new vote on Trump's border wall MORE (Minn.).

Scott Wong contributed.