Nancy Pelosi’s Tight Grip on the House Democratic Caucus Comes Loose

Known as one of the sharpest leaders in decades, the California Democrat now faces discontent within her ranks.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) found herself in unfamiliar territory on Thursday: presiding over a fractured Democratic caucus that she has historically been able to control with the deftness of a seasoned political maestro.

On Thursday, the California Democrat faced criticism from all factions of her caucus over what was seen as mixed messages about her plan to use a government funding deadline to spur action on immigration reform. A day earlier, she had spoken for a record-setting eight hours on the House floor to read statements in support of so-called DREAMers, those undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children. Now, she was mustering only a modest attempt to beat back a government-funding bill that did not include DREAMer protections.

Pelosi had said she would vote against the measure. But she hadn’t actively encouraged other House Democrats to do so, leaving the impression that she was content if it were to pass. It all led to a chaotic day and, likely, a rare conclusion: a Democratic caucus lacking unity when grappling with a major legislative initiative.

“Leader Pelosi usually runs a pretty tight ship, which is why this chaos was so unusual,” Jim Manley, who served as a top aide to ex-Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV), told The Daily Beast. “The fact that they had to call a caucus [meeting] to sort it out tells me that her caucus is confused about what she hopes to accomplish.”

Few leaders in congressional history have managed their ranks with more fealty and efficiency than Pelosi. But the Trump presidency has presented notable challenges. With so many legislative battles to fight, she’s had to strategically pick her fights. This week was no exception, as the government inched closer to a shutdown at midnight Thursday.

Congress on Thursday was considering a sweeping two-year budget agreement to avert that shutdown. The deal funded a number of domestic initiatives supported by Democrats and did away with the budget caps that the party has decried since they were put into place during the Obama administration. But it did not address the fate of DREAMers, despite the nearing expiration of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which provides nearly 700,000 DREAMers with legal protections.

Faced with this legislative quandary, Pelosi has attempted to craft something of a third way. She told reporters she was not pushing her members one way or the other on the budget deal, only explaining to lawmakers why she personally was voting against it.

Later in the day, a spokeswoman for House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) told The Daily Beast that Hoyer was whipping members against the bill, going further than Pelosi’s stated position earlier in the day. By 2:00 p.m., Pelosi had sent a letter to Democratic lawmakers explaining why she personally was voting against the budget deal—but, once more, she did not explicitly ask her colleagues to do the same.

Usual Pelosi allies felt little pressure to stick with leadership. Rep. John Yarmuth (D-KY), the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, appeared to even criticize the strategy of using government funding deadlines to force action on DACA. He also warned Democrats that, as was the case with last month’s shutdown, they could risk getting the blame and therefore suffer consequences in the midterm elections.

“Nancy thinks differently. I don’t think that we would ever get DACA through the budget process,” Yarmuth told The Daily Beast. “It would be a problem if we end up shutting the government down over DACA. … [In this budget] we got all our priorities met except DACA. So to me, that would look like we’re shutting the government down over DACA.”

While Yarmuth was criticizing Pelosi for going too far, immigration hardliners in the Democratic caucus suggested that she wasn’t doing enough. Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and other liberal lawmakers have been demanding that DREAMer protections be attached to any must-pass spending bill as a means to act on the issue before the DACA program lapses on March 5. And they viewed Thursday night’s deadline to avert a government shutdown as the final leverage point for Democrats.

“Once you’ve taken away the threat of closing down the government, do you think Democrats are going to wake up and say, ‘we’re going to close down the government’? It’s laughable. Nobody’s going to take you seriously,” Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) told reporters.

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“Democratic leadership said time and time again, we’re going to use our leverage. We’re going to make sure that the DREAMers are attached to a must-pass bill,” Gutierrez added. “That’s no longer the commitment.”

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus is unified against the budget deal. But a chunk of House Democrats appear to be in favor of it. It is unclear, though, whether that will be enough to make up for the handful of Republicans who have already come out against it over deficit objections. Late Thursday afternoon, House Democrats held a caucus meeting ostensibly to discuss a path forward.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) said on Thursday he was committed to acting on immigration after the budget passes, but reiterated that the House will consider a bill that President Donald Trump supports. Such a commitment is not one that Democrats were looking for. Instead, Pelosi asked Ryan to echo Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who promised to open up debate on an immigration bill early this month—so long as the government remains open. McConnell made the pledge in order to win over Democratic votes to end a three-day shutdown last month.

Ryan gave no indications this week that he is prepared to make such a concession, and Democrats will be forced to decide on Friday whether they want to block government funding in order to extract a political win.