Democrats were jubilant Thursday as Nancy Pelosi reclaimed the speaker’s gavel and the House of Representatives opened the 116th Congress. But you have to wonder how long the kumbaya can last in the Democratic conference, as divisions over style and tactics have already become apparent.
Can Pelosi keep her conference from fracturing the way the Republicans’ did after winning a House majority in 2010?
From 2011 through the conclusion of the 115th Congress this week, the majority GOP conference functioned at times like a European-style parliament, with essentially two conservative parties forming a coalition government that frequently split and embarrassed the leadership. Former House Speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan may have been in charge, but regular fracturing prevented the ruling party from getting the 218 votes it needed to pass, say, a farm bill, raise the debt limit or fund the Department of Homeland Security.
The smaller of the two coalition partners — the Tea Party, or House Freedom Caucus, as it became known — had about 40 members, not enough to do anything on its own but enough to keep the Republican Party from achieving 218 votes if it so chose.
Pelosi will face similar pressures, except she’s got a three-way split with about 95 progressives on one flank and 90 “New Democrats” on the other, according to one analysis. Already, some of the new progressives are unhappy with the rules package Pelosi put forward, and many of the New Democrats have no interest in the “Medicare for all” plan championed by the progressives.
The Republicans and Freedom Caucus members were united on most votes but not all; the same will be true for these Democratic factions. The question is whether the differences of opinion will boil over the way they did for Republicans, driving the party’s elected leadership crazy.
A major issue Pelosi will have to deal with is whether to impeach President Donald Trump. A number of Democrats want to impeach, even as Pelosi has tried to tamp down such talk. On the day of her swearing-in, Rep. Brad Sherman of California re-introduced articles of impeachment against Trump (he and Reps. Al Green of Texas and Steve Cohen of Tennessee first introduced them in 2017), inserting the topic into the news on a day Pelosi would rather be focused on other things.
More than 6.5 million people have signed a petition to impeach, and the leader of the petition drive — billionaire liberal Democrat Tom Steyer — is planning a run for president. Numerous polls from various news organizations last year — including this network’s exit poll from the midterm elections — showed a vast majority of Democrats wanted Trump impeached.
Well, Democrats won the House and the bloodthirsty partisans aren’t just going to forget about what drove them to donate and knock on doors in 2018. This will be a major headache for Pelosi, who has the political acumen to understand that a hyperpartisan impeachment proceeding could easily backfire and cost her party dearly in 2020.
Whether Pelosi can hold her conference together will have more of an effect on 2020’s presidential campaign than on policymaking, anyway. With Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his 53-seat majority in the Senate standing ready to block whatever shots the House puts up, the challenge for Pelosi is running an agenda that could be packaged and sold by the Democratic nominee for president.
If she can’t control her progressive flank over the next two years, the fractured result could be that voters in middle America come to the same conclusion they did in 2016: The national Democratic Party is just too extreme to be entrusted with the presidency.