House Democrats Struggle To Control Their Message

Mar 7, 2019
Originally published on March 7, 2019 6:42 pm
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House Democrats wanted this to be a week of celebration. They're about to pass a signature piece of legislation. It's an update to voting rights protections accompanied by stricter campaign and ethics rules. Last week, the House passed bipartisan bills to crack down on gun violence. And yet many Democrats are not in the mood for celebration. The spotlight is on warring factions within the party and a vote to denounce anti-Semitism. It was spurred by comments from Minnesota Democrat Ilhan Omar.

NPR's Kelsey Snell reports on how Democrats are struggling to stay in control of the message in their new majority.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi started a regular press conference this week with a cheerful list of ways Democrats are fulfilling campaign promises. They've addressed gun violence and voting rights, and they're moving on to tackling health care costs and LGBTQ rights. But as Pelosi opened things up for questions, she joked that none of those achievements seem to be breaking through.

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NANCY PELOSI: So we're busy with our legislative work despite what we might read in the press.

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SNELL: For a second day in a row, the questions started with Ilhan Omar. The Minnesota Democrat's latest comments about Israel are drawing fresh accusations of anti-Semitism. That's creating a serious problem for Democrats after Republicans already forced votes on the issue once before. And the divisions have dominated both the headlines and a series of tense closed-door meetings for Democrats. It's a distraction that's getting frustrating for a lot of them, like freshman Abigail Spanberger.

ABIGAIL SPANBERGER: We put forth a comprehensive package, and people are talking about what's on Twitter. And I think that's a problem.

SNELL: Losing the message now is a particularly big problem for moderates like Spanberger. She is known as a majority maker, a Democrat who beat a Republican incumbent in 2018 and is already fighting for re-election. And Republicans are eager to exploit any divisions among Democrats.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wants to highlight their split over the controversial Green New Deal with a vote. House Republicans are using procedural rules to force uncomfortable votes on a variety of issues. It's a tactic that allowed them to tack on a surprise immigration amendment to one of Democrats' prized gun bills.

But progressives like freshman Veronica Escobar say the recent controversies cannot dissuade Democrats from pursuing more liberal policies. They say voters want things like "Medicare-for-all" and the Green New Deal, and the party can't run away from those votes.

VERONICA ESCOBAR: You know, it's a challenging time because the country is changing. The party is changing. And the caucus is so representative of that.

SNELL: But moderate Democrats say their constituents are getting scared. Michigan freshman Elissa Slotkin says it's frustrating to have to explain to more moderate voters that their interests have not been abandoned by Democrats.

ELISSA SLOTKIN: The extreme focus on a small portion of our caucus doesn't do any justice to the people of the Midwest, to the people that I represent. And they have no less right to be represented than the far-left.

SNELL: Moderate leader Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey says Democrats need to get away from splashy controversies if they don't want to lose their majority.

JOSH GOTTHEIMER: We won the Congress through the middle. And what I say to folks is focus on getting things done. Focus on what's best for your district. Your job is not to worry about national politics. You don't work for the national political party. You work for your district.

SNELL: Progressive leader Pramila Jayapal doesn't disagree. She says all of these controversies this week are just noise, and Democrats can recover if they stick together.

PRAMILA JAYAPAL: We are now in the majority, and the Republicans have an intent to try to divide us whenever they can.

SNELL: Democrats hope they can get back to their message next week when they move on to working on advancing protections for victims of domestic violence. Kelsey Snell, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.