House infighting: Does Pelosi have a tea party problem?

Lisa Mascaro and Laurie Kellman
Associated Press
Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., left, whispers to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., outside the Capitol on Friday.

Washington — A restive group of newcomers. Baffled party leaders. Fiery conversations behind closed doors that spill into public view and threaten to upend legislation.

After a wrenching week for Democrats, it’s hard not to wonder: Does Speaker Nancy Pelosi have a tea party problem?

Emboldened by their ability to seize the spotlight and shape the national debate, a core group of high-profile freshmen Democrats are driving an agenda that could define the party for years to come. Much like the tea party conservatives who vaulted Republicans to power a decade ago, these Democrats’ firm ideology and wait-for-no-one swagger have set off a fight for the future of the party.

This week they helped sway the House majority during the emotional debate over how to respond to remarks from freshman Rep. Ilhan Omar that were viewed by some as anti-Semitic. In a party meeting, another freshman, Rep. Jahana Hayes, was unafraid to question Pelosi and other leaders who sought to find a middle ground and balance the complaints of other members.

That could be a preview of what’s to come. Some of the same lawmakers who defended Omar are pushing the party to endorse drastic steps to tackle climate change with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal. They’re ready to impeach President Donald Trump, openly defying Pelosi’s resistance to the idea.

Looking ahead, newly elected Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, said the events so far have “made us stronger.”

The difference between the old and new guard is not just about policy. It’s also about tactics. The newcomers, from a generation decades younger than their leaders, are uninterested in House culture that once rewarded freshmen who waited their turn and kept their heads down. Some in the new class make their case on social media and use America’s curiosity about them to their advantage.

“We not only look differently, but we speak differently and we work very differently,” said Tlaib, whose call to impeach Trump — hours after being sworn into office, punctuated with a profanity — rocketed across Twitter.

“Right now, we’re feeling more and more heard and seen here,” she said.

The challenge ahead is whether Democrats can fulfill their promise of showing Americans they can govern and not slip into the disarray that tangled Republicans when they controlled the House.

The tea party class came to Washington in 2011, handing the reins to House Speaker John Boehner, but only rarely taking his lead. The hardline conservatives were able to capitalize on built-in leverage points to flex their power on priority issues — using budget battles to cut spending or using the debt limit deadline to rein in deficits. They hung together, even as they threatened to shut down government by refusing to give their votes to pass legislation.

The empowered liberal freshmen don’t appear to have as clear a strategy. They are mainly free agents with their own brands and followings, which they leverage in similar but sometimes different ways. Their voices, and millions of social media followers, are perhaps their most valuable currency.

The debate over Omar’s comments — a fight over race, identity and tolerance — clearly hit a pressure point, creating some unexpected alliances between the newcomers and other members. They quickly found allies among the older guard.

The passion in the debate took some leaders by surprise and made for a complex solution. What started out as a denunciation of anti-Semitism ended up being a debate over how to say the party stands against bigotry. And it ended what amounted to a four-month honeymoon for the House Democrats.

Not all freshmen are eager to be branded as young and restless.

While much of the attention has flowed to Omar, Ocasio-Cortez and their fellow travelers on the left flank, another freshman, Rep. Donna Shalala, a former Cabinet secretary who represents a Miami-area swing district, said other freshman expect to be heard, too.

“This narrative that two or three people are driving the agenda is ridiculous,” she said.

Like Boehner, Pelosi is known as a keeper of institutional norms, and expects a certain amount of deference. But what is different is the way the two wield the power of the gavel. Boehner was slower to discipline those who strayed from his direction, while Pelosi is seen as one more willing to assert the leader’s ability to control dissent.

GOP strategist Sean Spicer said Pelosi’s problem is less about vote tallies than the tone of the debate coming from the new members, which has been impassioned at times.

“Boehner had more of a problem with keeping troops together on key votes and key policies,” said Spicer, the former Trump press secretary. “Right now she’s got a problem of how do you excuse some of the behavior and style.”

Pelosi, speaking Friday at the Economic Club of Washington, said she “thrives” on the diverse voices in her caucus and suggested that Democrats “channel our exuberances” to work together.

She acknowledged that she’s got some things to learn about the institution in which she’s served for more than three decades. But she added, “There’s something to be said for experience.”

Veteran lawmakers watching the new majority take shape are similarly confident.

Many of them have served these past years while Republicans were in control, waiting for this moment to return to power. Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J., says the difference between the tea party troubles and this new generation is the role of Pelosi.

Boehner, he said, “gave people enough rope, and then it choked the party.” Former House Speaker Paul Ryan “had the same problem and it ate him, it ate him alive. I think that Nancy’s trying to listen, but she’s firm. She knows where the line is.”