Nancy Pelosi and Cheri Bustos Continue Dividing Democratic Party, Take New Swipes at Ocasio-Cortez

The latest attacks by party leaders on the Bronx freshman suggest that they feel under siege.

U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., speaks during the National Action Network Convention in New York, Friday, April 5, 2019. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaks during the National Action Network Convention in New York on April 5, 2019. Photo: Seth Wenig/AP Photo

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., both took aim this week at Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., an escalation of recent attacks by ensconced elements of the party against newer members of Congress.

Ocasio-Cortez, who is often charged by Democrats in Congress with dividing the party, has not responded to either Pelosi or Bustos, and did not respond to a request for comment. The latest attacks by party leaders on the Bronx freshman suggest that they feel under siege or sense an opening to crush a nascent insurgency threatening to reshape the party.

In an interview with USA Today published on Monday, Pelosi appeared to take a jab at the freshman representative, saying that having a caucus capable of passing legislation is more important than the size of any House Democrat’s social media following. Though she didn’t name any names, Ocasio-Cortez has almost 4 million Twitter followers and is the only prominent Democrat close to rivaling the president in online engagement.

“While there are people who have a large number of Twitter followers, what’s important is that we have large numbers of votes on the floor of the House,” Pelosi said.

In response to Ocasio-Cortez’s recent call for small donors to hold off on donating to the DCCC, Bustos said sarcastically on CNN’s “New Day” that Ocasio-Cortez’s strategy ”worked so well that we had record fundraising numbers in the first quarter.”

“But that said, look, my job, again, is to hold on to this fragile majority,” Bustos said. “And that includes the progressive members of our caucus. What I would tell the people who are thinking about whether they want to support the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is I would say this: Last cycle, we invested $30 million to elect progressive members of the U.S. House of Representatives, and 10 of those are part of this front-line program that we need to make sure that we’re protecting.”

Ocasio-Cortez, who toppled 10-term incumbent Joe Crowley to win her seat in 2018, urged small donors to “pause your donations to DCCC & give directly to swing candidates instead” to counter the new party policy of blacklisting any vendor that works with primary challengers. In order to become a preferred vendor in the 2020 cycle, firms are required to agree in an application form not to work with anyone challenging an incumbent. She called the policy, which the DCCC announced in late March, divisive and harmful to the party.

Pelosi and Bustos’s remarks come after former President Barack Obama, in a private meeting with House freshmen, alluded to Ocasio-Cortez and a handful of allied freshmen, suggesting that their proposed programs were too expensive and should be dialed back. And at the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference, Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., took aim at Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., and Ilhan Omar, D-Minn. “By the way, there are 62 freshman Democrats. You hear me? Sixty-two. Not three,” he said, later apologizing and saying that he only meant to elevate the other 59 freshmen, not denigrate the three he singled out.

Despite the dismissive approach to social media from Pelosi and Bustos, Ocasio-Cortez has been able to circumvent traditional political gatekeepers partly because of her online fluency. And she has used the platform to benefit other Democrats. Following the rebuke to the House campaign arm’s policy, Ocasio-Cortez raised $32,000 each for three other lawmakers — Reps. Jahana Hayes, D-Conn., Katie Hill, D-Calif., and Mike Levin, D-Calif. — in a matter of hours

Justice Democrats, which played a key role in the elections of Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib, and others, is actively recruiting challengers to incumbent Democrats. The DCCC considers defending incumbents from primary challenges, even in safe blue districts, crucial to protecting the majority. The DCCC is largely funded by dues from Democratic members of Congress, as well as a significant amount of money from corporate PACs.

The leadership of the Congressional Progressive Caucus has also pushed back against the consultant policy. CPC Vice Chair Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., called it an “unprecedented grab of power” and “slap in the face of Democratic voters across the nation.”

When asked in the Monday report how her progressive colleagues responded when she told them to focus on legislative proposals they could pass, Pelosi said, “They’re fine. As I say to my own district, ‘You go out and elect 218 people, just like San Francisco, then we can talk.’”

Pelosi has clashed with the insurgent faction of the party more than she has with the centrist, business-friendly wing that led an insurrection against her bid for House speaker. The House Problem Solvers Caucus and Blue Dog Democrats worked to try to upend her speakership bid, yet the comment is just her latest dig at Ocasio-Cortez, who officially endorsed her speakership.

The House speaker has spoken dismissively about the significance of Ocasio-Cortez’s win and the progressive energy that catapulted her to victory. “They made a choice in one district,” she said last year. “So let’s not get yourself carried away as an expert on demographics and the rest of that. We have an array of genders, generations, geography, and the rest, opinion, in our caucus and we’re very proud of that.”

Pelosi’s singling out of Ocasio-Cortez may go back to the representative’s decision to participate in a sit-in in Pelosi’s office before she had even been sworn in. The protest was organized by the Sunrise Movement, and backed by Justice Democrats, calling for a select committee to focus on a Green New Deal.

In February, Pelosi mocked the Green New Deal, comprehensive legislation aimed at addressing the threat of climate change, which is Ocasio-Cortez’s signature issue. “It will be one of several or maybe many suggestions that we receive,” Pelosi told Politico. “The green dream, or whatever they call it, nobody knows what it is, but they’re for it, right?”

Correction: April 11, 2019
An earlier version of this story misstated how much money Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez raised for Reps. Jahana Hayes, Katie Hill, and Mike Levin. She raised $32,000 each. The story has been updated.

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