Simmering Democratic tensions show signs of boiling over
Fights over the filibuster. Tensions over Israel. Bickering over police funding. And grumbling over immigration policy.
As Congress heads into a hot summer in Washington, discord among Democrats has begun to bubble up, putting a dent in the armor of party unity just as leaders will need it most to pass a series of prominent reform bills they’ve promised their voters.
The party has razor-thin majorities in both the House and Senate, requiring virtual unanimity on major legislative priorities that have not, or will not, attract support from across the aisle.
Democratic leaders have held a firm line under President Biden thus far, uniting lawmakers in both chambers behind an ambitious agenda that’s led, most notably, to enactment of a massive coronavirus package in March — a $1.9 trillion spending endeavor that passed without a single Republican vote.
But the low simmer of internal disagreement is heating up heading into the short summer session, rattling the lid of party harmony and threatening to spill over in a rolling boil that jeopardizes both Biden’s agenda and the Democrats’ prospects for keeping the House and Senate in next year’s midterm elections.
Amid the frictions, defiant Democrats are insisting the flare ups are merely a routine part of any legislative debate — and that they’ll be unified when it comes time to vote on specific proposals.
“What we show is that there’s democracy inside the Democratic Caucus,” said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas).
“I have no argument with healthy democratic actions, skepticism, criticism within the Democratic tent,” she continued. “It’s healthy, and then we come full circle and we get a resolution.”
Such predictions may prove to be prescient yet, as Democrats charge ahead in the coming months with efforts to adopt a huge infrastructure package, overhaul national policing practices, strengthen voter protections and stabilize a volatile economy just emerging from the shocks of the coronavirus pandemic. To accomplish those things, however, they’ll have to quell the conflicts within their diverse and restive ranks — conflicts that have surfaced in highly public fashion in both chambers in recent weeks.
In the Senate, moderate Democrats Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) are opposing a push to eliminate the filibuster, sparking outrage from liberals who view the procedural gambit — which empowers the minority party by requiring 60 votes to move anything through the chamber — as the chief impediment to Biden’s agenda.
Manchin has gone a long step further, opposing voting rights legislation and threatening to oppose any other major proposal, including infrastructure spending, that lacks bipartisan support. The combination of line-in-the-sand positions has infuriated fellow Democrats in and out of Congress, who are accusing the centrist senators of rewarding Republican obstructionism.
“We have to dial this in. We have to recognize that waiting for Republicans to come along is like waiting for Godot: it’s never going to happen,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), who heads the Progressive Caucus. “We’re going to sit under the tree and wait every single day, and they’re not going to show up in the numbers that we need in order to pass something with 60 votes.”
Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Pa.) offered a similar warning.
“It would have been nice to have bipartisan support,” she said. “But let it be known that this administration and our caucus can move forward and do big things for America without bipartisan support.”
Some of Manchin’s Senate colleagues have been even more biting.
“If you can figure out what Joe Manchin is about, let me know because I can’t,” said one Democratic senator.
The cracks are showing in the House as well.
Last month, Democratic leaders struggled to pass what they thought would be an easy lift: legislation to boost security funding at the U.S. Capitol following the violent mob attack of Jan. 6. Instead, a small group of liberal lawmakers, known collectively as “the squad,” threatened to sink the proposal, saying the police need more accountability, not more funding.
The proposal ultimately squeaked by, 213-212, after three of those liberals agreed to vote “present.” But the episode emboldened progressives who are fighting racial bias in law enforcement — and highlighted the difficulties facing Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and other Democratic leaders as they seek to move contentious legislation with the slimmest of majorities.
More recently, some Democrats — particularly members of the Hispanic Caucus — were up in arms after Vice President Harris went to Central America and urged would-be Guatemalan migrants to forego any effort to enter the United States. “Do not come, do not come,” she said.
Harris’s impetus was clear: The United States has seen an increase in migration at the southern border, and the Biden administration is under heavy criticism from Republicans blaming his policies for the rise.
Liberals, though, were aghast, noting that U.S. law clearly allows foreigners threatened by violence or oppression at home to seek asylum in the United States. Some also blamed U.S. policy for helping to foster the hostile Central American conditions that many migrants are hoping to escape.
“We can’t help set someone’s house on fire and then blame them for fleeing,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), a liberal firebrand with Puerto Rican roots, wrote on Twitter.
The latest internal clash featured a Democrat who’s grown accustomed to them: Rep. Ilhan Omar (Minn.), a Somali refugee and one of the first two Muslim women to serve in Congress. On Monday, Omar took to Twitter to lament the “unthinkable” human rights “atrocities” committed by a series of actors, lumping the United States and Israel in with Hamas and the Taliban on her list of targets.
The tweet incensed a number of Jewish Democrats, who responded late Wednesday night with a statement condemning her “offensive” and “misguided” message. They called for a clarification, which Omar provided Thursday afternoon. “I was in no way equating terrorist organizations with democratic countries with well-established judicial systems,” she said.
Yet Omar also took an unveiled shot at the dozen Democrats who’d criticized her, accusing them of promoting “islamophobic tropes” — a message of censure that was endorsed by other liberals in the caucus, many of them minorities.
The tense back-and-forth prompted Pelosi to issue a rare joint statement with her full leadership team that sought a delicate balance, at once promoting the right to “legitimate criticism” of U.S. and Israeli policy while condemning “false equivalencies” between those nations and terrorist groups. Their statement did not mention Omar’s charge of “harassment” against her Democratic critics.
“We welcome the clarification by Congresswoman Omar that there is no moral equivalency between the U.S. and Israel and Hamas and the Taliban,” the statement read.
But if the tensions have been settled on the Democratic side, at least for the time being, the episode is hardly over in the eyes of Republicans, who are racing to highlight the discord across the aisle in hopes of advancing their 2022 message that Democrats are too “radical” to keep their majorities. Indeed, the Republican National Committee, joined by the GOP campaign arms in both chambers, all blasted out emails Friday accusing Omar of antisemitism — and linking other Democrats to her.
To be sure, the recent disagreements have been relatively minor for the Democrats, who like to boast a big tent and seem to revel in the occasional discord stemming from the diversity in their ranks. But they’ve also exposed tears in the fabric of Democratic unity at a crucial juncture, when Biden is seeking big victories on major legislation, including proposals around police reform and voting rights that touch on the very issues of race at the root of the Omar uproar.
Jayapal, for one, is pressing for a two-prong solution to the legislative gridlock Democrats are facing. Biden should get more aggressive, she said, and Democrats should abandon the notion that Republicans are negotiating in good faith.
“Nothing has changed. We have the same slim majorities that we had at the beginning of the year. We know how challenging that is,” she said.
“What we need is for the president to do what he did with the American Rescue Plan, which is to lean in heavily and say, ‘This is my vision as president, as the leader of the Democratic Party,’ ” she continued. “And if we don’t deliver, it is people across the country — swing voters, surge reporters — who really believe that even though they gave us three branches of government that we can’t get anything done. Just like Republicans want people to believe.”
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