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‘We are either a team or we’re not’ — Democrats struggle with Republican messaging votes

Pelosi wants Democrats to stay unified against GOP moves but moderates worry about political attacks

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., wants her party to stay unified on minority procedural tools that can be used to divide the majority party. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., wants her party to stay unified on minority procedural tools that can be used to divide the majority party. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The new House Democratic majority is having its first major family disagreement as the caucus struggles to stay united against Republican messaging votes, which the minority is deploying through a procedural move known as a motion to recommit. 

Republicans in their first two months in the minority have already won two motions to recommit because of Democratic defections. Not once during the past eight years in which Republicans held the majority did Democrats win a motion to recommit. 

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, known for her ability to keep her caucus together, is frustrated that her party is allowing Republicans to leverage the procedural tool as a political weapon.

“To those who think that they have to go down a certain path, understand the pressure you are putting on your colleagues,” Pelosi told Democrats during the caucus’s weekly whip meeting Thursday, according to a source in the room. “So, we are either a team or we’re not, and we have to make that decision.”

A motion to recommit, or MTR, is one of the few procedural tools the minority party has to get its message across. While the procedure can be used in a way that actually makes substantive changes to legislation, most often the minority’s goal is to send a political message, not improve the bill.

That’s why Pelosi has dismissed the MTR votes as inconsequential. 

“I think we should just vote against all motions to recommit. It’s a procedural vote,” the California Democrat told reporters at her weekly press conference Thursday.

A senior Democratic aide close to the moderate wing said Pelosi’s argument that such motions are procedural is “disingenuous.” Around 2009, the tool was modified from a stall tactic that sent bills back to committee to one that provides for an immediate and sometimes substantive amendment to legislation, the aide said. 

Leadership should not demand party loyalty 100 percent of the time, particularly from members from Republican-leaning districts who campaigned on bipartisan governing, or Democrats risk losing their majority, the aide said.

Asked about that argument during her press conference, Pelosi said that Democrats fracturing on the MTR votes actually provides Republican more fuel for their attacks. 

“Vote ‘no,’” she said. “The fact is a vote ‘yes’ is to give leverage to the other side, a surrender of the leverage.”

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‘Minority rights’

As Democrats discussed the MTR issue in their weekly whip meeting, two rank-and-file members floated getting rid of the procedure altogether. 

House Rules Chairman Jim McGovern argued against that.

“Having not too long ago been in the minority, I want to make sure whatever we’re talking about, that there’s some protection of minority rights,” the Massachusetts Democrat told reporters after the meeting. 

While McGovern said he doesn’t like how Republicans have used the motion to recommit as a political weapon, he acknowledged that Democrats did so too.

“We were guilty of this when we were in the minority. We used the motion to recommit as kind of a gotcha vote,” he said. “And unfortunately, it’s become weaponized in a  way that’s not constructive legislating.” 

One proposal some Democrats are contemplating is changing the rules to require more time to review motions to recommit. Democrats often don’t know what the Republicans are planning for the motion to recommit until they get to the floor for the vote.

“The truth of the matter is we have five minutes to deal with a substantive amendment, which is the final amendment to a bill,” said Michigan Rep. Dan Kildee, a chief deputy whip. “If it is going to be treated — I don’t think it should be — but if members decided they’re going to treat it as a substantive amendment, you got to have more than five minutes to determine what the impact of it might be.”

McGovern said ideas like providing for more advanced filing of the motions “are things that are worth talking about,” but he noted leadership has not asked him to do anything to facilitate that discussion. 

The aide close to the moderate wing said that if Democratic leaders don’t listen to concerns about the MTR and find a way to reduce the political potency of the tool, calls to get rid of it will only increase.

House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn, who is responsible for curtailing Democratic defections on votes, told reporters Thursday that the caucus was addressing the MTR issue but declined to say whether he would support changing the procedure.

“I don’t know whether it requires a rule change, but we’re working through it … see what’s going to get people comfortable,” the South Carolina Democrat said. “We have a very diverse caucus, and I wish people would not compare us to the Republicans, where everybody looks alike. On our side, we have various backgrounds and experiences that we have to take into account.”

Republicans’ warning

Pelosi seemed to try to quell talk of a rules change by saying any changes to the MTR process should be considered by the select committee studying proposals for modernizing Congress. The panel is not due to report its recommendations until the end of the year. 

While Pelosi’s comments suggest Democrats are unlikely to change the MTR rules anytime soon, Republicans warned them of the consequences if they did.

“To me that’s the nuclear option. The world changes,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy warned, saying Democrats should not be removing or weakening one of the few tools the minority has.

The California Republican declined to provide specific actions he would take if Democrats did alter the rules on motions to recommit, saying, “We’ll see.”

A spokeswoman for House Minority Whip Steve Scalise was more explicit as she noted that Republicans never tried to alter the MTR when they held the majority and that Democrats doing so “would be an unprecedented break in tradition.”

“While it might be standard operating procedure for Democrats to change the rules and rig the game when they’re not winning, House Republicans will not tolerate these totalitarian tactics by Speaker Pelosi,” Lauren Fine said in a statement. “If Democrats move forward with this brazen, closed door power grab, they should be prepared for all legislative activity to grind to a halt.”

Pelosi responded to that threat by saying, “I don’t know that he has the authority to do that. The power of the speaker is awesome.”

Republicans, however, see Democrats’ problems with the MTR issue as a reflection of poor leadership. McCarthy directly called it a leadership problem as he noted there’s “turmoil” in the Democratic Caucus. 

“I never had a problem with that for eight years,” he said of the Republicans’ most recent tenure in the majority in which he served as party whip and leader. 

“Steny [Hoyer] and Nancy and Clyburn, they’ve been here a long time,” McCarthy said of the Democrats’ top three leaders. “They had been in the majority and then went into the minority. They knew the rules better than I did, and never once did I say I’d change it on them, because I respect the minority and I respect their ability to have a voice.”

Amid the MTR debate, Democrats stuck together Thursday as Republicans used one to try to add language exempting victims of domestic violence from a bill to lengthen the time the government has to conduct a background check before someone purchasing a gun can receive the weapon.

Only two Democrats — Reps. Collin C. Peterson of Minnesota and Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey — voted for that motion to recommit. Republicans, meanwhile, lost three of their members on that vote, as GOP Reps. Justin Amash of Michigan, Thomas Massie of Kentucky and Chip Roy of Texas voted against it.

Whether Thursday’s vote was an indication that Pelosi’s appeal for unity worked remains to be seen.

The aide close to the moderate wing said members had policy objections to Thursday’s MTR — many feared it could make it easier for domestic violence victims in a state of depression to commit suicide — but will continue to vote for ones in which they agree with the Republican amendments. 

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