Divided Democrats Swear They Are Not Divided

The party's House caucus remains split on several key issues: Trump's taxes, the minimum wage and spending.

LEESBURG, Va. ― House Democrats gathered here Thursday for their annual retreat to talk about policy goals and celebrate their return as the chamber’s majority. But 100 days into their new reign, the lawmakers face real divisions beneath all the happy talk.

Just don’t tell that to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

“You guys have it all wrong,” Pelosi told reporters at a press conference marking the start of the retreat. “We have such a unified [caucus]. 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.”

Pelosi continued: “Good morning!”

Despite Pelosi’s protests and a.m. greetings, the Democrats confront a number of issues splitting their ranks

Large numbers of the caucus support a national minimum wage of $15 an hour, while others prefer a more moderate approach of “regional” minimum wages, more along the lines of $12 an hour.

Questions also persist about how the Democrats ought to handle oversight of President Donald Trump. While many liberals want aggressive investigations and say their leaders ought to do whatever is possible to get Trump’s tax returns, a number of Democrats from politically vulnerable districts are wary of taking on the administration on the issue.

And on the one item that Congress absolutely has to deal with ― a government spending plan ― the Democrats remain divided.

Earlier this week, the Progressive Caucus prevented a budget crafted by their party’s leaders from coming to the House floor for a vote. Leaders of the liberal faction still think they are in the driver’s seat as they push for more dollars for non-defense programs, but appropriators are moving forward with the spending levels that progressives balked at.

 As Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) said of progressives on Wednesday, “When they become chair of the Appropriations Committee, they can figure it out.”

Progressives don’t want defense to get more money than all other discretionary programs combined. And they were successful in derailing legislation this week that would have set caps of $664 billion for defense and $631 billion for non-defense. But appropriators are moving ahead with those levels anyway.

Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-Washington) and Mark Pocan (D-Colo.), the co-chairs of the House Progressive Caucus.
Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-Washington) and Mark Pocan (D-Colo.), the co-chairs of the House Progressive Caucus.

Progressives reveled in their temporary victory, anyway.

“There are lots of pieces here,” Progressive Caucus co-chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) told reporters at the retreat. “We’ve preserved all of our leverage, and we’ve made it very clear that the Progressive Caucus has to be consulted.”

Jayapal and her caucus co-leader, Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), both continued to assert Thursday that the Democrats’ liberal wing was in a strong position to impose its will at a variety of different points in the congressional appropriations process ― despite the signs of little accommodation from those actually drafting specific spending bills.

Jayapal actually noted that Democratic leaders had largely disregarded progressives as the budget process continues. “On this particular issue [of] the budget caps deal, there was no movement.”

But she insisted progressives had sent a message to Pelosi and other Democratic leaders by holding up the budget. She said her faction in the fight is “being listened to,” she said.

That part remains to be seen.

So far, Democratic leaders seem remorseless on largely cutting progressives out of the spending negotiations. Responding to the budget being pulled from a floor vote, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) suggested on Wednesday that leadership was still in control. “Very frankly, we wouldn’t have lost any vote this week if we wanted to win,” Hoyer said.

And again, as progressives were issuing press releases celebrating their win on the budget skirmish, the Democratic leadership was slipping language into a rule that allows appropriators to move forward with the spending caps they want.

With leadership over that hurdle, the Appropriations Committee can begin writing its bills. And with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) signaling this week that he and Pelosi are working on a bipartisan caps deal, progressives may end up getting largely cut out of spending decisions.

Asked Thursday if they were considering withholding votes on appropriations bills, Jayapal and Pocan left that question unanswered. But they did suggest that this was just the beginning of the process, and they weren’t giving in anytime soon.

“There are several pressure points,” Pocan said.