WASHINGTON - House Democrats exploded in recriminations Thursday over moderates bucking the party, with liberal Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez threatening to put those voting with Republicans "on a list" for a primary challenge.
In a closed-door session, a frustrated Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., lashed out at about two dozen moderates and pressured them to get on board. "We are either a team or we're not, and we have to make that decision," Pelosi said, according to two people present but not authorized to discuss the remarks publicly.
But Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., the unquestioned media superstar of the freshman class, upped the ante, admonishing the moderates and indicating that she would help liberal activists unseat them in the 2020 election.
Corbin Trent, a spokesman for Ocasio-Cortez, said she told her colleagues that Democrats who side with Republicans "are putting themselves on a list."
"She said that when activists ask her why she had to vote for a gun safety bill that also further empowers an agency that forcibly injects kids with psychotropic drugs, they're going to want a list of names and she's going to give it to them," Trent said, referring to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Triggering the blowup was Wednesday's votes on a bill to expand federal background checks for gun purchases. Twenty-six moderate Democrats joined Republicans in amending the legislation, adding a provision requiring that ICE be notified if an undocumented immigrant seeks to purchase a gun.
That infuriated liberals who have railed against ICE's role in conducting mass deportations and embarrassed Democratic leaders who couldn't keep their members in line on a high-profile bill.
The Democratic infighting reflects a fractured caucus and diverse freshman class, with dozens of moderates elected in districts that President Donald Trump won in 2016 at odds with hard-charging liberals. The split has exposed divisions among Pelosi and her top lieutenants, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., over the party strategy to keep its newfound majority.
Republicans have capitalized on the divide, using legislative tactics to split politically vulnerable moderates from the party leadership. In the coming months, votes on health care, the environment and spending bills could cause more extreme breaks in the Democratic ranks.
While the party's left wing has gotten outsize attention for its aggressive moves to push Democrats in that direction, the splinter faction is made up of the party's moderates - many of them freshmen taking their first congressional votes.
They insist that they are not going to be dissuaded from voting with their districts, and many are warning that majority control is at stake.
"It's this class of members that got elected that are the reason we have the majority," said Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., a co-chairwoman of the moderate Blue Dog Coalition. "Many of them come from these (moderate) districts, and their promise to their constituents was that they were going to put people over politics."
Inside the Democratic meeting, one of those freshmen - Rep. Xochitl Torres Small. D-N.M. - reacted sharply to Ocasio-Cortez's comments and rose to urge her colleagues to respect the political reality of representing a swing district, according to people present. A spokesman for Torres Small did not respond to a request for comment.
Several are also pushing to reform or eliminate the procedural tactic that has prompted the uproar - the "motion to recommit," which essentially gives the minority party one final opportunity to amend a bill moments before it comes up for a final vote.
Pelosi trained much of her closed-door frustrations on veteran lawmakers, noting that some held seats on coveted committees. "What is this?" she asked, according to the aides.
Later, when one lawmaker talked about the peril of persistently voting with party leaders on these motions, Pelosi responded that the party stood ready to help team players: "We have a massive M.A.S.H. operation, and, frankly, it should be there for those who have the courage to take the vote."
Publicly and privately, Pelosi has urged members to treat the Republican motions as procedural feints that should be routinely ignored. "Vote no - just vote no," she told reporters Thursday, "because the fact is, a vote yes is to give leverage to the other side." But Hoyer and Clyburn believe that is untenable when Republicans stand ready to use those votes as political cudgels against vulnerable Democrats.
Republicans, during their eight-year majority that ended in January, maintained remarkable discipline on these procedural votes. Democrats did not pass a single one from 2011 through 2018. But Democrats have already lost two this year, and during their previous majority from 2007 through 2010, they lost about 1 in 5.
"The fact of the matter is, it didn't affect our ability to pass substantive legislation that was very positive and had a positive effect on the American people," Hoyer said, recalling the last Democratic majority and playing down the importance of those votes.
But others say routine Democratic defections threaten to have more serious consequences when the party considers more sensitive bills - and perhaps has a Democratic Senate and president to pass them into law. Already some said they are fretting about the possibility of more Republican mischief.
"People need to be aware that coming down the road will be gotcha amendments that actually gut the bill, and if we want to be able to move legislation forward, we're going to have to figure out a way to deal with it," said House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern, D-Mass.
The philosophical differences between the three leaders have frustrated some incoming freshmen, who are already bewildered by the practice of voting on the surprise Republican amendments. Members typically have a few minutes' notice before having to cast votes on motions that, in recent practice, are crafted to be as politically uncomfortable as possible for the majority party.
"We hear lots of different things from lots of different members of our leadership about their views on this issue, and they should get together and figure it out," said Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich.
A few Democrats said Thursday that the motion to recommit should be jettisoned entirely.
"It's archaic, it's ridiculous, and it only shows our stupidity that we still have it," said Rep. Juan Vargas, D-Calif.
But others in party leadership were more wary of eroding one of the few tools handed to the minority in an institution where the majority typically enjoys absolute power. "What goes around comes around - you have to keep that in mind," McGovern said.
Hoyer has offered support for changing the procedure surrounding motions to recommit, giving members more time to review the minority amendment. But Democratic leaders have made no final decision about whether to pursue that, and lawmakers left Washington on Thursday, saying only that there will be further conversations about it.
Republican leaders, meanwhile, warned against changes. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., told reporters on Thursday that changes "would be a nuclear option" and "would leave a stain on this majority just two months in."
"Never once did we discuss, did we bring up the option or even entertain the idea," McCarthy said about the GOP's past majority. "Less than 60 days into a majority, they want to silence a minority? That is wrong."
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