The week before Thanksgiving, House Democrats gave President Joe Biden a victory to be grateful for: passage of his signature bill, the Build Back Better Act, a massive package of social spending, tax, and climate legislation. In a crisp white blazer, Speaker Nancy Pelosi presided over the vote, smiling as she announced the final results: 220 in favor, 213 against. On the floor, Democratic lawmakers erupted into cheers. Some members embraced one another; others broke out into little celebratory dances. A horde clustered around the speaker as she stepped down from the dais, chanting “Nancy! Nancy!”
The victory was a temporary one: The bill now needed to survive the crucible of the Senate, where it will be modified to conform to the needs of the upper chamber. But it was a moment of desperately needed progress for Democrats, whose triumphant mood was mixed with no small amount of relief. The vote occurred after weeks upon weeks of tense, sometimes bitter negotiation; at points, it seemed uncertain whether the bill would pass the House at all, stymied as it was by policy disagreements, personal frustrations, and procedural hurdles.
If you listen to the pundits, such turmoil is endemic, and suggestive of deep, irreparable divisions in the party. Democrats don’t merely disagree on key policies and principles, they don’t merely quibble over legislative details, they aren’t merely straining to contain a diverse coalition within their purportedly big tent—they are in full “disarray.” In fact, the turn of phrase is so common that it has become its own genre in political journalism, not to mention a rhetorical thorn in the side of Democratic leadership attempting to hold a fractious caucus together. The stakes for the putative disarray are high: The party holds 221 seats in the House of Representatives, and just 50 in the Senate. In the midterm elections, Democrats’ tenuous control is likely to be wrested back by Republicans in at least one chamber, if not both. And while party leaders argue publicly that they can keep the House, enough Democrats have announced plans to retire that the prospect does not seem particularly plausible. Privately, many acknowledge that the coming year may be the only chance they have for a while to enact their priorities.
Meanwhile, Democratic leaders nurture their own pet phrases. Anyone who regularly tunes into press conferences by Pelosi or others in charge will hear that the caucus is a “family,” that it relies on “unity,” and, in a description favored by Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries, that Democrats are a “coalition,” not a “cult.” These words act as signals not only to reporters but to caucus members: No matter how much members may disagree, they will—they must—stick with their own.
Are the Democrats in disarray, or are they an unruly but ultimately cooperative family, as they want the world at large to believe? The vote on the Build Back Better Act suggests a reality that contradicts the conventional wisdom: The current House Democratic Caucus is more unified than it seems. In my interviews with more than a dozen members of the caucus, as well as several staffers, strategists, and former members of Congress (conversations that were mostly conducted before the passage in the House of the Build Back Better Act), there was consensus that far less tension exists than is generally assumed. In the task of everyday legislating, House Democrats have largely voted as a bloc. “We’re always going to have differences of opinion on specifics, but I think we’re remarkably unified,” Representative John Yarmuth said. An early example of that unity was the passage of the American Rescue Plan in March, a massive coronavirus relief measure. Only one Democrat in the House, Jared Golden, defected. “We’ve been passing our legislation routinely with the thinnest of margins,” agreed Representative Gerry Connolly. “I think we’ve shown a great deal of cohesion.”
The dissension that does occur, most of the Democrats I spoke to maintained, is a normal and predictable result of a slim majority and a diverse coalition. “The media wants to say, ‘It’s the moderates versus the progressives,’ and ‘Those Democrats are so dysfunctional.’ This is actually really functional,” argued Representative Madeleine Dean. “When you’re going for transformational change … it takes a lot of work.”
But the functionality rests on a razor’s edge. Democrats may soon be out of power, and some of the recently elected progressive members may find life in the frustrated minority an unwelcome shock. Younger members of all ideological leanings will likely feel the same. And while Pelosi has impressed the importance of unity upon her caucus, she has no obvious heir apparent; when she retires, her successor may have difficulty filling her high-heeled shoes.
These swirling factors formed the tumultuous political backdrop to the House passage of the Build Back Better Act. House Democrats held together this time. But how long can the harmony last?
The Senate passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, a bipartisan bill aimed at revamping the country’s physical infrastructure, in August, but in the House, the road to the bill’s passage—and to the passage of the Build Back Better Act—was significantly bumpier. For months, progressives insisted that they would not vote for the smaller—but still significant—infrastructure bill until after the much larger social spending bill was approved. They were worried that once the more modest bill passed, moderates would balk at voting for the bigger one. By insisting on their preferred time line, they said, they were ensuring the success of Biden’s full agenda.
The process leading up to the votes wasn’t pretty. “I feel something stronger than frustration,” Representative Ilhan Omar, the whip for the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said ahead of the infrastructure vote. “It is hard to be in deliberations and negotiations with people who are not looking at this with the lens of benefiting and serving their constituents.” Moderates, meanwhile, resented progressives holding back a bill that would represent a bipartisan victory for Biden. Stephanie Murphy, in her capacity as co-chair of the more conservative Blue Dog Coalition, said in October that her group was “extremely frustrated that legislative obstruction of the [infrastructure bill] continues,” thanks to “a small number of members within our own party.”
At times, it could be difficult to distinguish which tensions were driven by ideology and which were merely a function of clashing personalities. “Everybody across the breadth of opinion in the Democratic party knows that Josh Gottheimer is a pain in the ass,” said a progressive Democratic member who spoke to me on condition of anonymity, referring to a leader of the movement to pass the infrastructure bill first. (When asked to comment on this characterization of him, Gottheimer said, “If you mean fighting for the families and children that I represent, then damn straight I am.”) Sometimes, the progressive member said, it was just “personal pique” that made people “want to swim against the Pelosi tide.”
In November, the votes on the two bills were finally and irrevocably split, as a group of five moderate Democrats refused to vote on the Build Back Better Act without an official score from the Congressional Budget Office, which issues reports determining the cost of legislation. Pelosi announced that the House would vote on the bipartisan bill and the “rule” for the Build Back Better Act, which set up the parameters for debate and the final vote for the second bill later in November. After furious behind-the-scenes negotiations, the five moderates—Gottheimer, Murphy, Kathleen Rice, Kurt Schrader, and Ed Case—agreed to a vote on the social spending bill by the week of November 15. Six progressive members, including Omar, voted against the infrastructure bill, but the loss of those members was offset by the 13 Republicans who supported it. It passed, and every single Democrat voted for the rule on the Build Back Better Act.
Although the months of squabbling evidenced some disorder among House Democrats, the intense negotiations also highlighted alliances. The literal eleventh-hour agreement to vote on the infrastructure bill in early November was reached through negotiation, supervised by President Biden and Pelosi, nudged along by Majority Whip James Clyburn and the Congressional Black Caucus, and ultimately negotiated and agreed to by members of the Progressive Caucus and the five moderates. “It was organic,” Representative Mark Pocan later said. “Leadership had nothing to do with the groups getting together.”
And despite the “no” votes from Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Cori Bush, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib, Jamaal Bowman, and Omar, the discord did not calcify. “We’re going to trust each other,” Pramila Jayapal, the chair of the Progressive Caucus, told reporters shortly before the vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill, appearing before the cameras with Gottheimer.
That trust was rewarded—if only in the House, and only temporarily. Pocan, the former co-chair of the Progressive Caucus, told me shortly before the successful House vote on the Build Back Better Act that stories saying that Democrats were in disarray were “dumb.” Like Dean, he felt that they were driven by the needs of the media ecosystem—an argument that is not uncommon among lawmakers, who tend to feel, fairly or not, that their work is misrepresented by the press.
I focused my reporting on excavating tensions in the House, but ultimately, the greatest roadblock to passing Biden’s agenda lies in the Senate. Democratic priorities that have passed in the House have fallen by the wayside in the upper chamber, blocked by the filibuster. To pass the Build Back Better Act, Democrats are attempting to use the reconciliation process, thereby dispensing with the need for Republican votes in the Senate. But reconciliation requires support from all 50 Democrats, and at least two, Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, have been reluctant to sign on. In December, Manchin said that he could not support the version of the bill passed in the House; his resistance ensures that it will effectively die in the upper chamber. Functionally, Manchin has a veto; that veto gives him the strongest voice in dictating the bill’s final form.
Manchin and Sinema command a great deal of attention because they depart from consensus in significant ways. Their outsize visibility and power can obscure the fact that in the Senate, too, more agreement exists than not. After Manchin’s announcement, it’s unclear whether any version of the Build Back Better Act can pass in the Senate; if any bill is approved, it will be radically different from what House Democrats so painstakingly negotiated. House Democrats would therefore again struggle to reach unity on a bill that may no longer reflect their key priorities, likely testing whether they can maintain the accord they’ve reached. “We have people who represent a tiny minority of the population who have far too much power in the Senate,” Representative Sean Casten told me. “That’s the challenge of where we are right now. It’s not a party issue. It’s a structure of the Senate issue.”
Not long after the Great Recession, on March 21, 2010—502 days after Barack Obama was elected president, and 226 days before Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives in an overwhelming defeat—the House approved the package of bills that made up the Affordable Care Act, overhauling the nation’s health care system. The legislation was, at the time, thought to be Pelosi’s crowning achievement as leader of the House Democrats.
Despite a strong Democratic mandate—for the bulk of the 111th Congress, the party held 255 seats in the House, and 59 seats in the Senate—the efforts to pass these bills were fitful, thanks to internal disagreements and firm opposition from a Republican minority. Thirty-four House Democrats voted against the ACA, along with every Republican. Political calculations were further complicated in 2009 by demoralizing losses in the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial elections, failures that forced Democrats to question whether they should be pursuing such an ambitious legislative agenda.
History has, if not repeated itself, then certainly rhymed. A Democratic majority in Congress, swept into power with a new president of the same party, is attempting to advance massive legislation in the wake of a nationwide crisis. Having passed large relief measures, congressional Democrats now press forward with legislation based in large part on the campaign promises that had propelled them into office. A loss in the Virginia gubernatorial race and a near-loss in New Jersey have Democrats anxiously looking toward the midterms.
Yet the similarities end there. In the years since ACA was passed, the nation has become even more polarized, to the point that a not insignificant minority of the public, egged on by a former president prone to destructive petulance, considers the Biden administration entirely illegitimate. If she wants her legislation to succeed, Pelosi no longer has the luxury of losing nearly three dozen Democrats; she’s limited now to three. And Congress is far more diverse than it was in 2010: younger, less white, and edging closer to gender equity. It is, put simply, a different caucus, functioning in a remarkably different context.
Not least among the changes is that ideas that were once divisive are now commonplace. “I think there’s very little disagreement on the … larger picture,” said Don Beyer, who represents Northern Virginia. “A generation ago, there were probably a lot of anti-abortion Democrats still in the house.” The progressive Democratic member who spoke with me on condition of anonymity agreed. “It’s unfortunate that we’ve got a 50–50 majority, so to speak…. But we’ve got 98 percent or 99 percent consensus.”
A second progressive member questioned whether all House Democrats have the same priorities, such as “a collective goal of making sure that … the basic human rights of people are set and maintained.” Yet even this lawmaker insisted that members didn’t feel “tension”; the relationships merely required “a lot of work”: “And with that comes disagreements, with that comes a lot of conversations, and a lot of strategy.”
Tom Perriello, a former congressman from a swing district in Virginia who lost his seat in the 2010 midterm elections, told me that Democrats have learned the lesson that sticking with the president is more likely to help them politically than harm them. Perriello, who campaigned on his support for the ACA and other elements of Obama’s agenda, lost his seat only narrowly. “They are all aware that trying to destroy Biden’s legacy and policy agenda is going to screw everyone in the party,” Perriello said. “If you’re going to lose, and lose anyway, there’s a lot more value in having used your time and power to do something really good for the world.”
The efforts to pass Biden’s agenda demonstrate the power of the coalitions within the larger Democratic caucus. One of the most influential factions, the Congressional Progressive Caucus, is at a zenith, comprising nearly 100 members of the Democratic caucus. Thirty years after it was first chaired by Senator Bernie Sanders, then a congressman, it is a formidable bloc within the House that can obstruct or allow passage of critical legislation.
The upsurge in its influence is partly due to a series of rules and structural changes adopted in late 2020 that, while controversial among some of its members, helped to consolidate the group’s priorities. The goal was to make the caucus a more cohesive unit as it entered a period in which Democrats held both houses of Congress and the White House. Previously, the Progressive Caucus functioned more like a “social club,” said Omar, the caucus whip. “We believed ... with the growing number of members who were asking to be part of our caucus, that we could actually have real influence if we were to organize ourselves in a way that made us more productive.” These reforms require members to vote with the Progressive Caucus two-thirds of the time when the group has taken an official position and to attend a specific number of meetings. The two co-chair positions were consolidated into one. Jayapal told me that she has three strategies to make the Progressive Caucus more effective: build relationships to “get people invested in the vision,” communicate with members so that they “see the caucus as being beneficial,” and “winnow” its priorities. “Usually, we have a laundry list of like 100 things,” she explained. “And then we’re not able to focus, and then we end up losing.” Even as the Build Back Better Act was steadily whittled down, progressives continued to insist that their primary priorities remained in it.
The Progressive Caucus has often been compared to the Freedom Caucus, a bloc in the House Republican conference that was ascendant after the 2010 midterms. But the Freedom Caucus was willing to block legislation supported by most of its conference, a trait that so far does not seem to be shared by the Progressive Caucus. Adam Green, a co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which often works with progressives in Congress, argued that progressives had not let issues such as Medicare for All fall off the table, but rather purposefully set them aside for now. “That wasn’t progressives trimming their sails,” Green said. “That was progressives being strategic.”
But because the bloc wants legislation to pass, it can swallow compromises that may rankle outside supporters. Someone like Manchin can walk away from the negotiating table at any time, significantly undermining progressives’ leverage. “If your faction does not want to get anything done, that gives you enormous power,” a longtime Democratic strategist told me. “The problem for progressives who are affected by this most is that they sincerely want to do good things for their constituents.”
The Progressive Caucus has multiple members who belong to other caucuses, including several in the New Democrat Coalition, which is almost exactly the same size and has about the same amount of power, and is considered to be more moderate and pro-business. (Each has a capable leader from the Washington state congressional delegation; Representative Suzan DelBene is the chair of the New Democrats.) In one of the most dramatic examples of caucus overlap, Representative Steven Horsford, who represents a critical swing district in Nevada, is a member of the Progressive Caucus, the New Democrat Coalition, and the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, which boasts Gottheimer as its co-chair. Horsford told me that his membership was informed by the demographic and geographic diversity of his district, which spans 52,000 square miles. “It was important to me to participate in caucuses here on the Hill that reflect different viewpoints,” he said.
A far smaller but still influential faction of the party is the Blue Dog Coalition. But the Blue Dogs do not have the sway that they once did. Many were voted out of Congress in recent years, as they represented conservative districts that chose to elect Republicans instead. During the fight over the ACA, numerous Blue Dogs voted against the health bill. “Back in the early days of my career ... there was, I think, a fair amount of difference about the attitudes about how far government should go and what government should be involved in and what it shouldn’t be,” reflected Yarmuth, who was elected in 2006 and is retiring at the end of his current term. “I don’t think that that’s the case right now.”
Beyond the ideological caucuses, there are identity-based caucuses such as the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, and the Congressional Black Caucus, which has always played a central role in Democratic Party politics. (Clyburn, a powerful member in the powerful caucus, endorsed Biden ahead of the influential South Carolina primary, and is largely credited for giving him the momentum to win that race.)
Even as these disparate factions disagree, they’re nonetheless often able to cooperate. Pennsylvania Representative Conor Lamb, a moderate running for Senate who has said he is a “normal” Democrat, has teamed up with Jayapal and other progressives to advocate for lowering the age for Medicare. Representative Abigail Spanberger, a Virginia moderate who has clashed with her colleagues over election messaging and argued that “nobody elected [Biden] to be FDR,” wrote an op-ed with other moderates calling for lower prescription drug prices. And throughout the fall, a host of Democratic members of all ideological leanings have filtered in and out of the White House, discussing the legislative agenda with the president.
“In the end, the only way we jointly accomplish things is by listening, coming together,” DelBene told me. “You have to have 218 votes in the House. You have to have 50 votes in the Senate for us on this. So the only thing that matters is how you build support to get there.”
Any discussion of the functioning of the House Democratic caucus is incomplete without mentioning Pelosi, its leader for nearly two decades. She is 81 but shows her age neither in appearance nor attitude. She almost never looks tired. She almost always wins, and if she doesn’t, she and her allies in and out of Congress will immediately try to spin defeat as victory. She has been able to maintain her grip on her caucus in part due to her accessibility and her willingness to communicate regularly with members. “She takes the time to take every single one of our calls or texts,” Dean said. “She’s just that kind of a leader.”
The speaker is famous for rarely bringing a bill to the floor unless she knows she has the votes. “She’s a vote counter, and so am I,” Jayapal told me. This approach means risking embarrassment if she sets a deadline for a vote that is subsequently missed. At both the end of September and the end of October, she wanted the House to vote on the infrastructure bill without a companion vote on the Build Back Better Act. Both times, she met insufficient progressive support, and the vote had to be pushed back. But Pelosi’s allies argue that even when the goalposts are moved, deadlines help her to pressure members. “She’ll impose deadlines ... when she thinks she’s just got to get the sides to quit delaying,” said Steve Israel, a former chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “If she thinks an agreement just isn’t baked yet ... she’ll expand and extend the time.”
Even those who don’t always agree with her recognize the effectiveness of her tactics. Representative Katie Porter, a second-term Democrat who represents a swing district and is the deputy chair of the Progressive Caucus, said that “there’s a lot of respect for the speaker’s ability and willingness to be a fair leader to all of her caucus.” The second progressive Democratic member who spoke to me anonymously, who has voted against Pelosi’s wishes in the past, said that Democratic leaders and staff are open to discussion. “If we disagree on something, I’m able to talk to them about why.” However, this member said, those conversations do not always translate to meaningful action.
Given Pelosi’s viselike grip on the caucus and her prodigious fundraising ability, few members are willing to criticize her on the record. But an undercurrent of generational tension runs within the caucus, particularly among its youngest and most left-wing members. Pelosi and Ocasio-Cortez, one of the most visible progressives in the House, have occasionally traded barbs. “One of the shocking things to me is the fact that Pelosi and AOC don’t have a close relationship,” the first progressive member who spoke to me anonymously said. “I mean, Pelosi was the AOC of her time. And you could view AOC as the Pelosi of her time.” But a source familiar with the relationship between the two women said that it had “definitely grown stronger in the last year,” and that Pelosi had “welcomed” Ocasio-Cortez’s participation in the congressional delegation to the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow this fall. Pelosi also appointed Ocasio-Cortez to the Select Committee on Economic Disparity and Fairness in Growth.
Although it is unclear if or when Pelosi will retire, a younger cohort is ascendant. Representative Ro Khanna said that the “groundwork” was being laid for a new generation to take over. Sharice Davids, who represents a swing district in Kansas and in 2018 was one of the first Native American women elected to Congress, said that the diversity of new members showed a “resetting of expectations” about who can be a lawmaker: “The trajectory we’re on is to have a Congress that really does reflect what the country not just looks like, but experiences.”
Even as Democrats argue that the unmistakably changing House is more cohesive than it is generally painted to be, room for improvement remains, and there’s a sense among members that their relationships would be strengthened by visiting one another’s districts. “If I talk to Joe Jones about what I found over at John Doe’s district, and which may be similar to his, it’s food for thought for people to know what’s going on in other areas,” Clyburn told me. Sometimes, Khanna reflected, politicians can get disconnected from “the average person’s aspirations”: “And then when you go to districts and you meet people, it just reminds you of where people are coming from.” Cindy Axne, a Democrat representing a critical swing district in Iowa, said members may not recognize that the problems faced by rural communities are similar to those in urban areas. Axne’s district spans a large chunk of southwestern Iowa, reaching from Des Moines to the borders of Nebraska and Missouri; as of 2019, its population was not much larger than that represented by Hakeem Jeffries, whose district encompasses just a chunk of Brooklyn. “It’s really important that as we make decisions for the American public, that we fully understand the difficulties that people are facing, no matter where they live, and not make assumptions.”
House members’ relative ignorance of one another’s districts may help explain the semblance of disunity; one representative’s opinion on what is best for their constituents—or conversely could harm them—may differ greatly from that of another. “We’re always going to have differences in priorities,” Yarmuth told me. “You don’t draft a bill and everybody says, ‘Oh, that’s great, let’s all vote for it.’ It’s not going to happen that way.”
This is the argument Democrats make again and again when questioned why they struggle to reach agreement on critical issues. And, given the eventual House passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill and Build Back Better Act after months of disagreement, it is not without its merits. At the beginning of November, a reporter asked Pelosi whether she worried that the confusion made it “look like the Democrats can’t get out of their own way.” Pelosi replied that she did not. “Welcome to my world,” she said. “This is the Democratic Party. We are not a lockstep party.”