PHILADELPHIA ― Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, offered some qualified criticism Friday of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s disparaging comments about some of Jayapal’s progressive colleagues, even as she defended Pelosi’s overall leadership style.
“I don’t think those comments were helpful to a broader picture of how we build progressive power in the House and what it looks like relative to overall Democratic power,” she said during a panel discussion at the liberal Netroots Nations conference in Philadelphia.
Jayapal was being asked to respond to a public spat between Pelosi and four newly elected progressive congresswomen nicknamed “the Squad”: Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts.
In an interview with New York Times op-ed columnist Maureen Dowd last Saturday, Pelosi made light of the Squad’s influence.
“All these people have their public whatever and their Twitter world,” she said of the Squad. “But they didn’t have any following. They’re four people and that’s how many votes they got.”
I’ve never felt disrespected as a woman of color by Nancy Pelosi. Rep,. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.)
The four congresswomen were the only Democrats to vote against a House emergency border funding bill, which contained new conditions designed to ensure humane treatment of the asylum seekers surging across the border. The Squad thought that the conditions on how the money would be spent were insufficient and wanted to block additional funding for Immigration and Customs Enforcement entirely.
In the end, the GOP-controlled Senate passed a bipartisan border funding bill by a margin of 84 to 8 that contained far fewer humanitarian regulations aimed at improving conditions in the detention facilities holding the asylum seekers.
When the bill came back to the House, moderate Democrats forced a vote on the Senate version without amending it to include the more-liberal House provisions, defying Pelosi’s wishes and saddling her with a rare legislative loss.
That Pelosi subsequently lashed out at the Squad for the first dissenting vote, rather than the centrists who foiled her plans when the Senate bill came back to the House, irked many progressive activists. It is also only the latest of many times when Pelosi has spoken dismissively about Ocasio-Cortez or her colleagues.
In response, Ocasio-Cortez has gone so far as suggesting the four women are targets because they are not white. In an interview with The Washington Post, she criticized Pelosi for persistent “singling out of newly elected women of color,” which she called “outright disrespectful.”
Jayapal, whose agenda largely depends on Pelosi’s cooperation, couched her modest criticism of the remarks with a far lengthier defense of the governing philosophy she believes Pelosi intended to articulate.
“I believe that it all comes down to votes,” Jayapal said. “Whether you’re on the outside or the inside, you’ve got to be able to leverage the votes.”
Thus, according to Jayapal, Pelosi, an expert vote counter, was merely pointing out that because the Squad does not command the support of a larger bloc of votes, they lack the power to dictate House Democrats’ agenda.
“I think what Pelosi was talking about is if you only have four votes in the House that you can’t get what you want done,” she said.
Jayapal, who is an immigrant from India, added a subtle repudiation of Ocasio-Cortez’s comments questioning Pelosi’s racial sensitivity.
“I don’t typically find Pelosi to be someone who disrespects members,” she said. “I’ve never felt disrespected as a woman of color by Nancy Pelosi.”
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) spoke alongside Jayapal on the panel at Netroots Nation, which was about how to enact ambitious progressive legislation. Jayapal arrived late from Washington because she had to vote on a defense spending bill, so initially Merkley had the panel to himself.
He blamed House Democratic leaders for the passage of the unamended Senate bill, which he had voted against in the Senate. He argued that many Senate Democrats voted for the border security legislation on the assumption that House Democrats would pass their more ambitious version again and force the two legislative chambers into a conference committee that would produce a compromise.
As a result of the House’s failure to force the bills into a conference committee, Merkley said, “We lost all the leverage that the progressives like Rep. Jayapal had worked so hard to get. It just went down the tube.”
“The House has to carry its weight to restore the values of America,” he added. “It failed on this occasion.”
When Jayapal arrived, she blamed Senate Democrats for passing the more conservative legislation by such a wide margin. That created a situation, she said, in which moderate House Democrats wondered why they could not just vote for such a consensus-driven bill.
“We cannot have the Senate passing these big bipartisan votes because it affects what happens in the House,” she said.