Dems counter portrait of discord

LEESBURG, Va. — Defiant Democrats are rallying from an embarrassing internal fight over government spending, with all factions now vowing to bridge differences across the broad ideological spectrum that marks the caucus.

The kumbaya assurances will soon be put to the test, as Democrats are heading quickly into high-stakes debates on health care, climate change and immigration — complex issues certain to tax the resolve of party leaders striving to maintain a united front within a highly diverse caucus.

Gathering for their annual issues conference in Northern Virginia, spirited Democrats challenged the media, with lawmakers of all stripes joining party leaders in bucking recent news reports portraying a caucus at war.

ADVERTISEMENT

“You guys have it all wrong,” Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOcasio-Cortez claps back at Trump after he cites her in tweet rejecting impeachment Ocasio-Cortez claps back at Trump after he cites her in tweet rejecting impeachment GOP nervous that border wall fight could prompt year-end shutdown MORE (D-Calif.) told reporters. “We have such a unified caucus. But if it serves your purpose to say we're seething, you're on the wrong track. But you can waste your time on that while we go forward with what we are going to do for the American people.”

"Good morning,” the Speaker sternly added before walking out of the room.

Shortly before their three-day event, which ended Friday, Democratic leaders were forced to delay a vote on a two-year budget deal in the face of a liberal outcry over proposed spending levels — an awkward start to a retreat designed to highlight party unity 100 days into their new majority.

But just a day after the postponed vote, outside of the Washington glare, those same progressive leaders were downplaying any divisions, saying their strategy was designed simply to send a message that they want more input in the formation of big-ticket legislation. The ability of Democrats to pass a spending package, they said, won’t be affected one bit.

“It kind of means nothing,” said Rep. Mark PocanMark William PocanOn The Money: DOJ offers legal opinion backing refusal to release Trump tax returns | Centrist Democrats raise concerns over minimum wage | Trump bashes Powell ahead of crucial Fed meeting | Design leaks for Harriet Tubman bill On The Money: DOJ offers legal opinion backing refusal to release Trump tax returns | Centrist Democrats raise concerns over minimum wage | Trump bashes Powell ahead of crucial Fed meeting | Design leaks for Harriet Tubman bill Centrist Democrats raise concerns over minimum wage push MORE (D-Wis.), co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) who led opposition to the spending package. “Generally, September is when this kind of stuff happens. Our leadership was just trying to do it a little bit early, but obviously they didn't do it with full-enough consultation.”

Added Rep. Pramila JayapalPramila JayapalCentrist Democrats raise concerns over minimum wage push Centrist Democrats raise concerns over minimum wage push Overnight Health Care: Democratic bill would require insurance to cover OTC birth control | House Dems vote to overturn ban on fetal tissue research | New rule aims to expand health choices for small businesses MORE (D-Wash.), the other CPC co-chairwoman: “We made it very clear that the Progressive Caucus has to be consulted."

ADVERTISEMENT

In many ways, the ideological tensions within the Democratic Caucus were an inevitable outgrowth of their new House majority. The Democrats seized the lower chamber because centrist freshmen flipped dozens of GOP seats in red-leaning districts. But the 2018 midterms also relied heavily on an insurgent liberal base that came out in force to protest President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump cites tax cuts over judges as having biggest impact of his presidency Trump cites tax cuts over judges as having biggest impact of his presidency Ocasio-Cortez claps back at Trump after he cites her in tweet rejecting impeachment MORE.

The resulting group of Democrats is the most diverse in the nation’s history, with women and other minorities composing more than half of caucus. It’s a dynamic that’s having real sway over the party’s legislative agenda.

“To come in as a caucus that is 60 percent women, people of color, LGBT and beyond, really transforms the conversations that have always been the priorities of the Democratic Party,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezOcasio-Cortez claps back at Trump after he cites her in tweet rejecting impeachment Ocasio-Cortez claps back at Trump after he cites her in tweet rejecting impeachment Trump cites Ocasio-Cortez to defend himself against impeachment MORE (D-N.Y.). “Who is here changes how these priorities are discussed and how they are legislated.”

Here at the Lansdowne Resort and Spa, located in a Northern Virginia swing district where Democrats unseated a GOP incumbent in the fall, Democrats were all too happy to showcase their diverse caucus. Leadership trotted out a dozen new House freshmen women to meet reporters, including Ocasio-Cortez, and Reps. Jahana HayesJahana HayesDems counter portrait of discord Ocasio-Cortez helps raise K in a few hours for House candidates How to stand out in the crowd: Kirsten Gillibrand needs to find her niche MORE (Conn.), Susie LeeSuzanne (Susie) Kelley LeeMORE (Nev.) and Madeleine DeanMadeleine DeanDemocrats face voters clamoring for impeachment Pelosi, Nadler tangle on impeachment, contempt vote Democrats talk subpoena for Mueller MORE (Pa.).

At the retreat’s final news conference, Pelosi was flanked by African American, Hispanic American and Asian American lawmakers, as well as liberals and centrists.

“We did some reflecting. We dwelled on possibilities and most importantly, this caucus became a family,” said one of those centrists, freshman Rep. Dean PhillipsDean PhillipsThe Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by MAPRx — Biden, Sanders to share stage at first DNC debate The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by MAPRx — Biden, Sanders to share stage at first DNC debate Centrist Democrats raise concerns over minimum wage push MORE (D-Minn.). “A family of diversity from all around the country, of different races and religions, professional backgrounds and even political perspectives.”

“We’ve got to start talking more, and tweeting a little bit less. And that’s what we did,” he added.

Democratic leaders have embraced that diversity as nothing less than an asset.

"Our diversity is our strength. Our unity is our power,” said Pelosi, tapping a favorite phrase.

But if the retreat was designed to promote unity, it also accentuated some of the underlying divisions facing the Democrats' new majority.

Different factions of the party, for instance, are clashing over legislation to raise the minimum wage. While all sides agree the rate needs an increase, liberals are championing a proposal for a floor of $15 per hour nationwide.

"It shouldn't matter where you live,” Pocan said.

While that proposal has more than 200 co-sponsors, it’s facing resistance from Democratic centrists who are pushing an alternative bill, sponsored by Rep. Terri SewellTerrycina (Terri) Andrea SewellCentrist Democrats raise concerns over minimum wage push Centrist Democrats raise concerns over minimum wage push On The Money: House to vote on minimum wage this summer | Sanders doubles down on democratic socialism | May deficit surges | Democrat puts hold on Treasury nominees in fight over Trump tax returns MORE (D-Ala.), which allows for more regional flexibility. Under her measure, the minimum wage in Tuscaloosa would rise to $11.50 per hour by 2024.

"My approach is just an acknowledgment that where you live the cost of living may be different,” Sewell said. “I am obviously willing to sit down at the table and talk about it, because we're all committed to increasing the minimum wage."

If there was any theme to the Democrats’ conference, it was that pledge from all sides to iron out their differences. Many rejected the notion that the conflicts are significant at all.

"The fun trope that the centrists are at odds with the progressives,” said Rep. Jim HimesJames (Jim) Andres HimesHillicon Valley: Hacker group targeted electric grid | House Democrats press CBP over facial recognition program | Senators offer bill to protect health data | Groups file FCC complaint over carriers' use of location data Hillicon Valley: Hacker group targeted electric grid | House Democrats press CBP over facial recognition program | Senators offer bill to protect health data | Groups file FCC complaint over carriers' use of location data Lawmakers grapple with deepfake threat at hearing MORE (D-Conn.), former chairman of the New Democrats, is “largely not true.”

"We are committing to working with all of the ideological caucuses within the Democratic majority to actually get stuff done,” said Himes, “so that next November … we can go to the American people and say, 'You trusted us with the majority, we worked together, we got over our disagreements, and we got some good stuff done for you.' "

One wild card is how Democratic leaders respond to the latest controversy swirling around freshman Rep. Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarOmar blasts Trump's comment about accepting foreign campaign dirt as 'un-American' Omar blasts Trump's comment about accepting foreign campaign dirt as 'un-American' Hillicon Valley: Hacker group targeted electric grid | House Democrats press CBP over facial recognition program | Senators offer bill to protect health data | Groups file FCC complaint over carriers' use of location data MORE (D-Minn.).

A progressive rabble-rouser and one of two Muslim women in Congress, Omar set off a firestorm after she gave a speech saying “some people did something” on 9/11 — words that Republicans and conservative pundits ripped as an overly flippant reference to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Progressive leaders, including Jayapal and Ocasio-Cortez, have defended Omar, who has received numerous death threats. But Assistant Speaker Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), who is running for the Senate, told MSNBC that Omar’s words were “hurtful” and “offensive.”

On Friday, Pelosi did not appear particularly pleased to be asked about Omar’s latest flap as Democrats tried their best to project unity. But the Speaker said she would reserve comment until she had a chance to speak with Omar personally.

“I call them in before I call them out. So I’ll look forward to hearing from her,” Pelosi told reporters.

Omar, a Somali refugee who wears a hijab in public, represents part of the diversity that defines this historic, 235-member Democratic caucus.

Freshman Rep. Lori TrahanLori A. TrahanMaking the case for ranked-choice voting Making the case for ranked-choice voting Dems counter portrait of discord MORE (D-Mass.), referring to the budget impasse, said diversity is an enormous strength — if it’s harnessed effectively.

“It's not always neat, sometimes it's messy, because you're putting lots of different perspectives [forward],” Trahan said. “But when you don't have the benefit from diverse and multiple perspectives, you don't land on as good a place."