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 PelosiPelosi: Democrats will 'certainly' beat Trump in 2020 Kavanaugh impeachment push hits Capitol buzz saw Lewandowski, Democrats tangle at testy hearing 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-CortezGreta Thunberg scolds Congress on climate action: 'I know you are trying but just not hard enough' Ocasio-Cortez endorses challenger to Democrat Lipinski in Illinois race The Hill's Morning Report - What is Trump's next move on Iran? 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 ClarkTen notable Democrats who do not favor impeachment The Hill's Morning Report - Trump searches for backstops amid recession worries Fourth-ranking House Democrat backs Trump 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 HoyerDemocrats headed for a subpoena showdown with White House Election security funds caught in crosshairs of spending debate New storm rises over Kavanaugh 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 KildeeIt's time for Congress to address the 'forever chemical' crisis Lawmakers grill manufacturers over 'forever chemicals' contamination House Democrat presses Pompeo over price of Trump's scrapped Denmark trip 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 MurphyDemocrats ignore Asian American and Pacific Islander voters at their peril Blue Dog Democrats urge action on election security Lawmakers urge DNC to name Asian American debate moderator MORE (D-Fla.) and Scott PetersScott H. PetersDuncan Hunter gets another GOP challenger Hillicon Valley: Facebook won't remove doctored Pelosi video | Trump denies knowledge of fake Pelosi videos | Controversy over new Assange charges | House Democrats seek bipartisan group on net neutrality House Democrats seek bipartisan working group on net neutrality 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 SchakowskyLawmakers jump-start talks on privacy bill The Hill's Morning Report — Mueller testimony gives Trump a boost as Dems ponder next steps On The Money: House to vote on budget deal Thursday | US, China resuming trade talks next week | Mnuchin backs DOJ tech antitrust probe 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 McCarthyGOP struggles with retirement wave Trump touts Washington Post story on GOP support Pence extends olive branch to Cummings after Trump's Baltimore attacks 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 YarmuthMcConnell accepts Democratic rep's challenge to 5 debates House Democrats blur lines on support for impeachment White House won't move forward with billions in foreign aid cuts 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 seeks to expand electoral map with New Mexico rally Omar says she hopes Netanyahu not reelected Sunday shows - Guns dominate after Democratic debate 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 DingellOvernight Energy: Trump to revoke California's tailpipe waiver | Democrats propose bill to revoke Trump endangered species rollback | Trump officials finalize rule allowing fewer inspectors at pork plants Democrats propose bill to revoke Trump endangered species rollback Polling director: Young voters swayed by health care, economy, gun control 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 - Can Trump save GOP in North Carolina special election? The 9 House Republicans who support background checks Congress must work together and solve humanitarian crisis at the border MORE (Minn.).

Scott Wong contributed.