It wasn’t exactly a mic-drop moment. But when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi abruptly ended a conversation as a freshman lawmaker no longer seemed to be listening, it showed just how far the Democratic leader and the new majority have to go in getting used to each other.
A lot has changed in the 12 years since Pelosi last ran the House.
The California Democrat is finding a freshman class whose members seem more eager to lead than follow. Part of a younger generation of lawmakers, mostly women and minorities, they bring perspectives and expectations different from some who have walked the halls for decades. A few, like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), carry their own star power in real-time on social media.
Their willingness to question the protocols of Congress is exposing Pelosi’s leadership team to high-profile stumbles. Leaders could not hold their majority in line on a routine procedural vote last week. And this week, a debate spilled into the open over a leadership plan for a resolution condemning anti-Semitism and Islamophobia largely in response to remarks made by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.).
“So, we have some internal issues,” Pelosi acknowledged Wednesday, Mar. 6, during a private caucus meeting.
It was during that behind-closed-doors session that another newly elected Democrat, Jahana Hayes of Connecticut, stood to speak about the resolution, according to those in the room.
Hayes wanted more input on the process. Others worried that their legislative agenda had drifted way off track. Some questioned why Omar’s actions were being singled out when others—namely President Donald Trump and Republicans in Congress—had repeatedly made offensive comments on race and religion.
When Pelosi addressed her, Hayes turned to walk away. Exasperated, Pelosi said if Hayes wasn’t going to listen, the conversation was over. She set down the microphone.
Hayes later told reporters that she didn’t realize Pelosi was talking to her. But, she said, she’s ready to speak up again, every time she needs to.
“I don’t want to wait two years before I raise my voice,” she said. “I know that looks different or feels different to people. … But I didn’t come here to just sit quietly and fall in line.”
Hayes said, “I don’t mean that to be disrespectful. But the people in my district deserve a voice. These are important decisions.” She added, “A new crop of freshmen, I guess.”
Every new majority has its growing pains. Former GOP Speaker John Boehner never really figured out a way to control the tea party Republicans who ultimately forced his retirement. And Pelosi’s predecessor, Republican Paul Ryan, called it quits rather than try to do much better.
Pelosi, who made history in 2007 as the first female speaker, has always been seen as a particularly strong leader. She fended off attempts to topple her return this year, and her stock soared among some Democrats as she took on Trump during the 35-day partial government shutdown.
But Pelosi faces a changed media environment that is rapidly chronicling every move of the historic freshmen class in real-time and a president in the White House eager, with his GOP allies in Congress, to capitalize on the divisions. Trump tweeted Wednesday about the resolution debate, saying it was “shameful” Democrats wouldn’t take a stronger stand against anti-Semitism in their conference.
Democrats also returned a veteran leadership team, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland and Majority Whip Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, who, along with up-and-comers, have made no secret of their interest in Pelosi’s job. They are responsible for setting the floor schedule and counting the votes, and share some responsibility — and blame — for the leadership’s early pitfalls.
While Democrats had a larger majority 12 years ago, the caucus was not as racially and ethnically diverse the first time Pelosi was speaker. There was a sense Wednesday among Democrats that Pelosi and her leadership team may have underestimated the anger and opposition that a resolution dealing only with anti-Semitism would inflame among progressives, who now include the first two Muslim women to serve in Congress.
Rep. Katie Hill (D-Calif.), a freshman liaison to Democratic leaders, said Pelosi is juggling several dynamics. Managing the social media and instantaneous reaction that turned the issue “into this massive explosion … is one of the biggest challenges,” she said.
In fact, it wasn’t Pelosi’s idea to put forward the resolution on anti-Semitism, according to those familiar with the situation. They and others spoke about private conversations on condition of anonymity.
But after fielding some 100 calls over the weekend from other lawmakers, some proposing it as a response to Omar’s comments about Israel, Pelosi agreed to the idea and suggested they broaden the resolution to include a rejection of anti-Muslim bigotry. Omar is Muslim-American and faces criticism, including by GOP lawmakers, and public threats.
The early drafts, though, went too far for some lawmakers, but not far enough for others. Jewish lawmakers, in particular, preferred the more narrow approach to anti-Semitism. Others wanted a more sweeping statement against other forms of racism and bigotry that, as Clyburn put it, was “anti-hate.”
After Wednesday’s session, Pelosi pivoted, shelving the issue that had already drained Democrats of much of their focus on the week’s agenda.
“This is a distraction,” said Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.), who made similar remarks during the private session. “We came in promising a rigorous agenda for the people.”
Others, though, said Democrats needed to remind Americans, and others, of the dangers of anti-Semitic tropes. Omar last week suggested the Jewish state’s supporters are pushing lawmakers to pledge “allegiance” to a foreign country.
“It’s important for us to have this conversation and for people to understand the history,” said Rep. Juan Vargas (D-Calif.). He faced his own run-in after Ocasio-Cortez tweeted about his views in what would have been seen as a rare display of intra-party disagreement.
Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), said Pelosi is adroit at being able to “adapt to the reality once that reality becomes clear to her.” He added, “We don’t have a perfect leader, but she’s doing an excellent job.”
Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), a progressive who is allied with Ocasio-Cortez and others in the new class, said, “I don’t agree with Nancy Pelosi on a number of things, but I understand that she knows more about how the system works than I know.”
Khanna added that the freshmen have brought “great energy and great voice, but ultimately Washington is still about getting things done, and Nancy Pelosi understands power.”