Bickering Democrats return with divisions

House Democrats returned to Washington this week licking their wounds after a demoralizing election performance and seeking ways to cool simmering internal tensions heading into the next Congress.

After predicting big gains to pad their majority, the party suffered the loss of at least 10 sitting members, with several more expected, and failed to knock off even a single Republican incumbent — something that was virtually unthinkable heading into Nov. 3.

The disappointing results have sparked an internal reckoning, one that has featured moderates blaming liberals for botching the party’s message; liberals pushing back in defense of efforts to energize the progressive base; and lawmakers of all stripes growing increasingly frustrated that the post-election finger-pointing has spilled into public view.

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“The hardest part about that is finding the forum to just talk it through,” Rep. Jared HuffmanJared William HuffmanIn their own words: Lawmakers, staffers remember Jan. 6 insurrection Overnight Energy & Environment — Manchin raises hopes on climate spending Energy & Environment — Advocates look for Plan B climate legislation MORE (D-Calif.) said Monday. “These are not insurmountable differences. We're all on the same team and I am convinced that, frankly, it's a pretty easy fix if we can just hear each other out and work it through. It's hard to do that on a super-leaky caucus call, and with all the outside folks just delighting in any hint of conflict.

“That's going to be a challenge for us.”

Caught in the middle are Democratic leaders, who are scrambling to decipher what went wrong on Nov. 3 and how to turn down the heat to help facilitate their legislative and political goals in the coming months.

In a letter to Democrats on Monday, Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Dems look to repackage BBB into salvageable bill The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden clarifies his remarks on Russia Democrats hope to salvage Biden's agenda on Manchin's terms  MORE (D-Calif.) appealed for unity, warning that internal divisions would only empower Republicans, undermine the Democrats’ chances to move another round of coronavirus relief in the lame-duck session, and threaten the party’s prospects in a pair of upcoming special Senate elections in Georgia.

“We advocate because we believe we can convince others of our point of view. If we advocate to unify, we can prevail,” Pelosi wrote. 

“Our Caucus draws strength from the ongoing conversations that we continuously have to build consensus and ensure that the legislation we put forward is respectful of the thinking and values of all Members,” she added. “I look forward to our continuing this productive dialogue.”

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Some of that “productive dialogue” has taken a turn for the acrimonious. Some moderates, such as Rep. Abigail SpanbergerAbigail Davis SpanbergerPelosi says she's open to stock trading ban for Congress On The Money — Ban on stock trading for Congress gains steam Joining Pelosi, Hoyer says lawmakers should be free to trade stocks MORE (D), a Virginia lawmaker who scraped her way to a second-term victory this month, have warned that the favored agenda of their far-left colleagues — including efforts to ban fracking, adopt single-payer health care and shift police funding to community services — jeopardized virtually every vulnerable centrist Democrat in the caucus.

“We lost members who shouldn't have lost,” Spanberger said during a caucus call several days after the election, the audio of which was obtained by The Washington Post.

Progressives fired back, arguing that their platform had energized the party’s base, thereby greasing the skids to President TrumpDonald TrumpJudge rules Alaska governor unlawfully fired lawyer who criticized Trump Giuliani led fake electors plot: CNN Giuliani associate sentenced to a year in prison in campaign finance case MORE’s defeat — the Democrats’ primary goal this cycle.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezThese Senate seats are up for election in 2022 Missouri House Democrat becomes latest to test positive for COVID-19 Louisiana Rep. Troy Carter announces positive COVID-19 test MORE (D-N.Y.), a liberal social media superstar, has gone a step further, criticizing party leaders and campaign operatives for what she considered a lackluster digital outreach strategy. And other liberals have cautioned that abandoning the liberal agenda risks making the party irrelevant in the future by alienating younger voters drawn to those left-leaning policies.

“The future, I think, is clearly [a] multiracial, multiethnic progressive future,” Rep. Ro KhannaRohit (Ro) KhannaSanders, 50 Democrats unveil bill to send N95 masks to all Americans Overnight Health Care — Insurance will soon cover COVID-19 tests Congressional Democrats press Biden to expand rapid COVID-19 testing MORE (D-Calif.), a prominent member of the Progressive Caucus, said Sunday in an interview with MSNBC. “That's where the base is, that's where young people are.”

Other lawmakers were quick to note that Democrats kept the gavel, won the White House and made gains in the Senate, even if the congressional results came in below expectations.

“These are political campaigns; every state is different,” said Rep. G.K. ButterfieldGeorge (G.K.) Kenneth ButterfieldDemocrats eager to fill power vacuum after Pelosi exit Democrats confront rising retirements as difficult year ends Members of Congress not running for reelection in 2022 MORE (D-N.C.). “But the takeaway is that we’re still in the [House] majority.”

Still, for a party forecasting a clean sweep on Nov. 3 — including the defeat of House Republicans deep in Trump country — it was a disappointing evening. And their slimmer House majority has nipped away at the cushion allowing Democratic defections on legislation, potentially complicating efforts to move certain bills through the lower chamber in the next Congress.

The political fallout, though, has been more immediate.

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Cheri BustosCheryl (Cheri) Lea BustosSwalwell slams House Republican for touting funding in bill she voted down To boost economy and midterm outlook, Democrats must pass clean energy bill On The Trail: Retirements offer window into House Democratic mood MORE (D-Ill.) fell on her sword after her party’s poor showing and said she would not seek a second term leading the campaign operation. But Pelosi, 80, also has been taking some incoming fire, even as no one has mounted a challenge against her as she seeks another term with the gavel.

Freshman centrist Rep. Elissa SlotkinElissa SlotkinMichigan Republicans sue over US House district lines Pandemic pushes teachers unions to center stage ahead of midterms Planned Parenthood endorses nearly 200 House incumbents ahead of midterms MORE (D-Mich.), who won her tough reelection fight by less than 4 percentage points, told Politico she would not back the Speaker for another two-year term and called for “new leadership” in the party. And a handful of other moderates have told The Hill they, too, want to see Pelosi gone.

These moderates were particularly perturbed last week when Bustos and Pelosi hosted a second private conference call on the campaign results, yet declined to address members’ concerns that the GOP had successfully tarred vulnerable Democrats as supportive of defunding the police, banning fracking, and socialism.

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“Accepting responsibility for failure is a rare attribute in Congress. The message went from, ‘we could gain over 10 seats and are pushing deep into GOP territory’ to an effort to put lipstick on a pig,” one frustrated centrist Democrat on the call told The Hill. “ ‘Bad polling, bigger headwinds than anyone recognized, and it was always going to be hard to hold those seats’ became the excuse. Nothing about poor messaging, misguided strategy or the inability to defend against the tags of socialism and defunding the police.”

Republicans have already knocked off 10 Democratic incumbents: the longtime Rep. Collin PetersonCollin Clark Peterson Progressives fight for leverage amid ever-slimming majority Six ways to visualize a divided America On The Trail: The political losers of 2020 MORE (D-Minn.), the Agriculture Committee chairman, as well as nine freshmen who had flipped GOP seats in the 2018 wave election. The 10th, Rep. Max RoseMax RoseMax Rose launches another run for Congress Max Rose preparing for rematch with Nicole Malliotakis: report 'Blue wave' Democrats eye comebacks after losing reelection MORE (D-N.Y.), who represents Staten Island, has conceded to his Republican challenger, Nicole Malliotakis, but the race has not yet been called.

Still, an overwhelming majority of the caucus appears to remain supportive of leadership, thrilled with Biden’s victory — and ready to move beyond the current factional flare ups.

“To me the big thing is: We won the presidency; we held the House; we gained ground in the Senate. This glass is at least half full. It's just not as full as we wished,” said Huffman. “I think we will move on here pretty quickly.”