WASHINGTON — It wasn’t exactly a mic-drop moment. But when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi abruptly ended a conversation as a freshman Connecticut lawmaker no longer seemed to be listening, it showed just how far the Democratic leader and the new majority have to go in getting used to each other.
A lot has changed in the 12 years since Pelosi last ran the House.
The California Democrat is finding a freshman class whose members seem more eager to lead than be led. Part of a younger generation of lawmakers, mostly women and minorities, they bring perspectives and expectations different from some who have walked the halls for decades. A few, like New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, carry their own starpower in real-time on social media.
Their willingness to question the protocols of Congress is exposing Pelosi’s leadership team to high-profile stumbles. Leaders could not hold their majority in line on a routine procedural vote last week. And this week, a debate spilled into the open over a leadership plan for a resolution condemning anti-Semitism and Islamophobia largely in response to remarks made by Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar.
“So, we have some internal issues,” Pelosi acknowledged during a private caucus meeting.
By Thursday, the House was back on track. On a vote of 407-23, it passed a resolution condemning anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim discrimination, and bigotry against minorities "as hateful expressions of intolerance." The vote was delayed for a time to include mention of Latinos to address concerns of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
Democrats wanted to swiftly push past at least one of the big issues that was dividing them and tangling their legislative agenda.
It was during that Wednesday behind-closed-doors session that another newly elected Democrat, Jahana Hayes of Connecticut, stood to speak about the resolution, according to those in the room.
Hayes wanted more input on the process. Others worried that their legislative agenda had drifted way off track. Some questioned why Omar’s actions were being singled out when others — namely President Donald Trump and Republicans in Congress — had repeatedly made offensive comments on race and religion.
When Pelosi addressed her, Hayes turned to walk away. Exasperated, Pelosi said if Hayes wasn’t going to listen, the conversation was over. She set down the microphone.
Hayes later told reporters that she didn’t realize Pelosi was talking to her. But, she said, she’s ready to speak up again, every time she needs to.
“I don’t want to wait two years before I raise my voice,” she said. “I know that looks different or feels different to people. ... But I didn’t come here to just sit quietly and fall in line.”
Hayes said, “I don’t mean that to be disrespectful. But the people in my district deserve a voice. These are important decisions.” She added, “A new crop of freshmen, I guess.”
Every new majority has its growing pains. GOP Speaker John Boehner never really figured out a way to control the tea party Republicans who ultimately forced his retirement. And Pelosi’s predecessor, Republican Paul Ryan, called it quits rather than try to do much better.
Pelosi, who made history in 2007 as the first female speaker, has always been seen as a particularly strong leader. She fended off attempts to topple her return this year, and her stock soared among some Democrats as she took on Trump during the 35-day partial government shutdown.
But Pelosi faces a changed media environment that is rapidly chronicling every move of the historic freshmen class in real-time and a president in the White House eager, with his GOP allies in Congress, to capitalize on the divisions. Trump tweeted Wednesday about the resolution debate, saying it was “shameful” Democrats wouldn’t take a stronger stand against anti-Semitism in their conference.
Democrats also returned a veteran leadership team, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland and Majority Whip Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, who, along with up-and-comers, have made no secret of their interest in Pelosi’s job. They are responsible for setting the floor schedule and counting the votes, and share some responsibility — and blame — for the leadership’s early pitfalls.
While Democrats had a larger majority 12 years ago, the caucus was not as racially and ethnically diverse the first time Pelosi was speaker. There was a sense Wednesday among Democrats that Pelosi and her leadership team may have underestimated the anger and opposition that a resolution dealing only with anti-Semitism would inflame among progressives, who now include the first two Muslim women to serve in Congress.
Rep. Katie Hill, D-Calif., a freshman liaison to Democratic leaders, said Pelosi is juggling several dynamics. Managing the social media and instantaneous reaction that turned the issue “into this massive explosion ... is one of the biggest challenges,” she said.
After fielding some 100 calls over the weekend from other lawmakers, some proposing it as a response to Omar’s comments about Israel, Pelosi agreed to the idea and suggested they broaden the resolution.
The early drafts went too far for some lawmakers, but not far enough for others. Jewish lawmakers, in particular, preferred the more narrow approach to anti-Semitism. Omar had questioned some members' allegiance to Israel; she and other young lawmakers have been critical of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government, rejecting his approach to Palestinians and other issues.
After Wednesday’s session, Pelosi pivoted, temporarily shelving the issue that had already drained Democrats of much of their focus on the week’s agenda.
“This is a distraction,” said Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-N.J. “We came in promising a rigorous agenda for the people.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., a progressive who is allied with Ocasio-Cortez and others in the new class, said, “I don’t agree with Nancy Pelosi on a number of things, but I understand that she knows more about how the system works than I know.”
Khanna added that the freshmen have brought “great energy and great voice, but ultimately Washington is still about getting things done, and Nancy Pelosi understands power.”