Ilhan Omar Controversy Caps a Month of Stumbles for Democratic Leaders

Ilhan Omar Controversy Caps a Month of Stumbles for Democratic Leaders

WASHINGTON — Representative Hakeem Jeffries, an unflappable Brooklynite tasked with keeping the fractious House Democratic caucus on message, wanted to spend Wednesday talking up the party’s all-in-one voting rights and ethics reform bill making its way to a vote this week.

Instead Mr. Jeffries, a top lieutenant of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s, stood uncomfortably in front of a specially printed “For the People” placard, sideswiped by a single anti-Israel comment from a freshman representative from Minnesota, Ilhan Omar — and peppered by reporters’ questions about how Ms. Pelosi planned to punish the newcomer without provoking a civil war.

So it has gone for Ms. Pelosi and her leadership team, which is showing some rust after eight years in the minority. The first gun control bills in 25 years cleared the House last month with little notice, swallowed whole by the House Oversight and Reform Committee’s hearing with President Trump’s former lawyer and fixer, Michael D. Cohen.

A resolution to end United States military involvement in Yemen was supposed to be an embarrassment to Mr. Trump, who would have had to use the first veto of his presidency. But Democratic leaders allowed the measure to be hijacked by a Republican procedural motion condemning anti-Semitism, and the resolution’s special status that would have forced the Senate to take it up was wiped away.

On Monday, a demand from three Democratic committee chairmen for all correspondence between Mr. Trump and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia should have grabbed big headlines. But it came out the same day that the House Judiciary Committee blitzed out 81 other letters laying out the road map to building an obstruction of justice case against the president.

But none of those missteps has quite compared to the conflagration around Ms. Omar.

Ms. Pelosi and her team had hoped to move quickly past an agonizing internal debate that publicly exposed racial and religious divisions in the party. But during a testy closed-door meeting on Wednesday, a handful of her rank-and-file members criticized her plan to push a resolution condemning anti-Semitism and other bigotry in response to Ms. Omar’s comments all but accusing supporters of Israel of dual loyalty.

The backlash forced her to delay a vote she had hoped would take place this week. More significantly, the battle overshadowed what was supposed to be a week when Democrats focused on the rollout of the For the People Act, or H.R. 1, a comprehensive government reform package intended to embody the party’s progressive policy response to Mr. Trump. While Democrats fought with one another, Republicans held news conferences, released videos and tried to define the centerpiece of the House Democratic agenda as an immoral giveaway to politicians.

“We are actually making great progress on gun safety legislation, on democracy reform, on prescription drug reform — and Republicans would like nothing more than for us to be dragged down into daily skirmishes over identity politics at this point,” said Representative Jamie Raskin of Maryland.

“We have to get past all of this, and quickly,” he added.

Formulating a unified political message and enforcing party discipline have always posed challenges for House Democrats, who represent a broader demographic and political coalition than the Republicans they supplanted in last year’s midterm elections. But herding the 235 Democrats in her caucus has proved difficult for Ms. Pelosi and her leadership team, and they have stumbled after besting Mr. Trump during the shutdown of the federal government in January.

Message control has grown far more difficult since Democrats lost the majority in 2010, thanks to social media — which gives backbenchers like Ms. Omar the power to dominate the news cycle by pressing send on her cellphone.

Yet part of the trouble lies with leadership, Democratic aides privately concede. Things have not gone according to plan, in part, because Democrats have introduced so many plans all at once and failed to account for political blowback.

The gun control bills did not have to come to a vote as Mr. Cohen took the witness stand. The demand for the Trump-Putin correspondence could have waited a day.

And the Yemen resolution was considered “privileged” — guaranteeing it a Senate vote — until Democrats lost control of the floor on a Republican “motion to recommit,” a routine procedural maneuver that Democrats had little success with when they were in the minority but that Republicans have already secured a number of times.

On Wednesday, it fell on Mr. Jeffries to reset the conversation.

“We are going to continue to proceed with a focus on our agenda,” he told reporters. “Nothing good is accomplished by being distracted by issues that divide the nation. We want to bring people together. There are folks in this town who want to tear folks apart.”

But he spent the better part of his 25-minute news conference answering questions on a range of controversies, including an attempt by freshman members to concede defeat and simply do away with the motion to recommit, and the less-than-seamless rollout of the House investigations into Mr. Trump.

Mr. Jeffries fielded just two queries on H.R. 1. One of them was about opposition to the proposal on the left.

Most of his time was spent trying to address the conflagration around Ms. Omar. Republicans, seeking to move past their own internal fight over Mr. Trump’s declaration of a national emergency at the border with Mexico, seized on the fight.

“It is shameful that House Democrats won’t take a stronger stand against anti-Semitism in their conference,” Mr. Trump wrote in a tweet Wednesday afternoon. “Anti-Semitism has fueled atrocities throughout history and it’s inconceivable they will not act to condemn it!”

To Democrats, that was galling. Mr. Trump has been accused repeatedly of trafficking in anti-Semitic tropes. His 2016 campaign tweeted out an image of Hillary Clinton in front of a Jewish star, over a pile of money. His final campaign ad railed against “global special interests” as the faces of the billionaire philanthropist George Soros, Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs and the Federal Reserve chairwoman Janet L. Yellen — all Jewish — crossed the screen. In 2015, Mr. Trump told members of the Republican Jewish Coalition: “You’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money. You want to control your politicians, that’s fine.”

But many Democrats were not ready to let Ms. Omar off the hook. Several Jewish members of Ms. Pelosi’s leadership team, including Representatives Eliot L. Engel, Nita M. Lowey and Jerrold Nadler, all New Yorkers leading powerful House committees, talked over the weekend about how to respond to Ms. Omar’s suggestion last week that pro-Israel activists were pushing “for allegiance to a foreign country,” a remark that her critics say played into the anti-Semitic trope of “dual loyalty.” Mr. Engel pushed for a resolution, as did two other prominent Jewish Democrats: Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey and Ted Deutch of Florida.

By Tuesday night, with members of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Progressive Caucus pushing back, it became clear to Ms. Pelosi that the measure would have to be rewritten to include a condemnation of anti-Muslim bias.

“What would be the appropriate level of punishment — a public flogging?” said Representative Raúl Grijalva, Democrat of Arizona and chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.

At Wednesday’s closed-door meeting, a handful of Democrats, including some prominent African-Americans and some freshmen, pressed Ms. Pelosi on why they were being pushed to vote on a measure they viewed as an unfair rebuke of Ms. Omar.

Representative Bonnie Watson Coleman, Democrat of New Jersey, defended Ms. Omar and said of the resolution, “I don’t think this is a good strategy,” according to one person in the room who took notes.

In addition to her own members, Ms. Pelosi must now be concerned about the Democratic presidential candidates. On Wednesday, two of them — Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Kamala Harris of California — spoke out in defense of Ms. Omar. Ms. Harris said she was concerned that the controversy might put the congresswoman “at risk,” while Mr. Sanders said he feared House Democrats were tamping down legitimate debate over Israel.

“What I fear is going on in the House now is an effort to target Congresswoman Omar as a way of stifling that debate,” Mr. Sanders said in a statement. “That’s wrong.”

Ms. Pelosi said the “picture painted of Ms. Omar is wrong,” and told the lawmakers that the language of the resolution was still under discussion, and that no date had been set for a vote.

Representative Jahana Hayes, Democrat of Connecticut, told Ms. Pelosi that she had “put us in a bad position,” and complained that she learned of the resolution by watching television.

As Ms. Pelosi was responding, Ms. Hayes began digging around in her purse; Ms. Pelosi, thinking Ms. Hayes was talking to another lawmaker in the room, grew visibly irritated, according to a second person present.

But the confrontation also underscored a generational divide between the speaker, who is 78, and newer, younger members of her caucus, like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who have created a powerful following through their use of social media.

Representative Jan Schakowsky, Democrat of Illinois and a longtime ally of Ms. Pelosi, made a plea for members to think twice before taking to social media to express controversial opinions, or risk dividing Democrats in a way that enabled Republicans to exploit those divisions.

“Can we not do this on Twitter?” she asked.

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