Opinion: Nancy Pelosi could have it worse. AOC and the ‘Squad’ have nothing on the Freedom Caucus

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), shown being interviewed in the Capitol on June 27, complained about "outright disrespectful" criticism from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco).
(Alex Wong / Getty Images)

Compared with what John A. Boehner and Paul D. Ryan had to deal with, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) really is living the life of puppies and rainbows.

Much is being made in Washington this week about a tussle between Pelosi and a cadre of progressive first-termers in her caucus — the self-deemed “Squad” of Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.). Although the group has been at odds with Pelosi multiple times this year, the spat took a personal turn this week in interviews and on Twitter.

At their private lunch Wednesday, House Democratic leaders exhorted their members to stop waving their dirty laundry around in public. But that didn’t stop Ocasio-Cortez from complaining to the Washington Post about “the explicit singling out of newly elected women of color” that “got to a point where it was just outright disrespectful.”


Them’s fighting words right there. And that’s why it’s no picnic to be speaker. But really, Pelosi’s antagonists pale in comparison to those faced by Boehner (R-Ohio) and Ryan (R-Wis.), who had to wrestle with the tea party zealotry that gave rise to the Freedom Caucus — a group loyal neither to party nor, evidently, to one another.

The Freedom Caucus controlled enough votes within the Republican caucus to defeat any measure (or candidate for speaker) that Democrats also opposed, which was pretty much everything of consequence that Republicans sought to do. So the freedomites used their muscle to wag the House, exerting enormous influence over the chamber’s agenda.

The Squad doesn’t have the numbers to do that, as Pelosi tartly noted in an interview with New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd. What it does have is an uncanny ability to attract the media’s attention. When was the last time the press corps spilled this much ink on a first-term Republican?

Which is not to say that Pelosi isn’t getting bruised as she tries to steer her charges through the legislative minefield. While the moderate and the progressive wings of the House have been far more willing to compromise than the members of the Freedom Caucus were while Boehner and Ryan wielded the gavel, the path forward is getting tougher.

Witness the outcry Pelosi generated when she dropped the House version of an emergency border funding bill in late June and brought the bipartisan Senate version to the floor for a vote. There, the pushback came not just from the Squad, but from leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which is more than twice the size of the Freedom Caucus.

Progressives had wanted Pelosi to fight harder for the House’s proposal, which would have attached more strings to the money and forced the administration to treat migrant detainees better. Time was not on the progressives’ side, though — the administration desperately needed more money to handle the surge of families coming across the border. Pelosi was also being pressed by moderate Democrats to embrace the compromise their Senate colleagues had negotiated, which prompted some sharp-elbowed tweets by progressives, such as the one Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) aimed at the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus:


Nice! That’s one of the reasons top House Democrats urged their colleagues to cool it on Twitter.

Regardless, the Senate version of the funding bill passed the House easily — although it drew more votes from Republicans than Democrats.

A similar fight is now brewing over the annual defense authorization bill, where splits have formed over its size ($733 billion) and its proposed restrictions on the use of military funds and personnel at the border. After that are likely to come very tough votes over raising the debt ceiling, striking a budget deal that could get Congress through the 2020 election, and funding the government for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1.

On those issues, House Democrats are going to have to reach agreements not just with Republicans in the Senate, but also with a mercurial President Trump. Regardless of where the Squad comes down, Pelosi is going to need moderates and progressives to stay on the same page if she’s going to have any leverage in the negotiations. The border funding bill shows what happens when she doesn’t.

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