Nancy Pelosi “cannot be seen by her party as being weak on negotiating with Donald Trump,” says President Donald Trump’s acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney. And “Nancy Pelosi is only looking to protect her speakership … and that’s why she’s unwilling to negotiate with us,” according to White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. These were excuses by the Trump administration to shift blame for the government shutdown. But they also were intended to suggest that Pelosi’s hold on the speaker’s gavel is tenuous, buffeted by a left-wing insurgency led by ambitious, impatient newcomers like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
The reality is that Pelosi grabbed the gavel on Thursday with a firm grip. The first two battles led by Ocasio-Cortez and her Instagramming army of rebels ran smack into Pelosi’s establishment fortress. When Ocasio-Cortez made waves by loudly demanding a new committee tasked with drafting a “Green New Deal,” Pelosi quietly brushed it aside last week, as if to say: Kids, brush up on your Schoolhouse Rock. Then after a meek surrender, Ocasio-Cortez, along with Rep. Ro Khanna, hastily tried to derail restoration of the so-called pay-as-you-go rule or “PAYGO”—a limitation on new spending without offsets that some on the left see as a threat to their big-ticket agenda—only to watch the chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus side with Pelosi and nip the rebellion in the bud.
None of Ocasio-Cortez’s demands were accepted. Instead, in the rules resolution for the new Congress, Pelosi created a Select Committee on the Climate Crisis tasked with proposing climate policy recommendations to existing committees, similar to the process that Pelosi established in her first stint as speaker. The person Pelosi tapped to be chair of the select committee, Rep. Kathy Castor of Florida, made clear that the Green New Deal wouldn’t be the sole focus of the committee’s work, and that she could not insist that every member reject donations from the fossil fuel industry (though Castor did say she would stop accepting them.) Castor, who is not a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, was likely picked because she has been the No. 2 Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee and can be expected to respect that committee’s jurisdiction over climate policy.
The response from Ocasio-Cortez and her allies was negative but limited. The harshest response came from the new climate activist group Sunrise, which declared the rejection of the Green New Deal resolution to be “a dereliction of duty from Nancy Pelosi and Democratic Leadership.” Sunrise and the leftist PAC Justice Democrats also took aim at Castor for having a retirement account that includes a mutual fund which invests in utility companies. But Ocasio-Cortez stood down. Although she lamentedon Twitter that “even in our own party, it‘s apparently too controversial to ask that we keep oil+gas co’s away from enviro policy,” she didn’t declare her opposition to the rules package on the grounds it lacked a Green New Deal.
Then, when the rules package was formally released on Tuesday, Ocasio-Cortez and Khanna did announce their opposition, but over PAYGO, instead of a Green New Deal. On Twitter, Ocasio-Cortez described PAYGO as a “dark political maneuver designed to hamstring progress on healthcare+other leg.”
But in the rush to pick a new fight, she failed to rally her fellow progressives. The Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chairs Reps. Pramila Jayapal and Mark Pocan released a statement clarifying that the PAYGO rule was simply an implementation of the PAYGO law. (And it’s a pretty weak law. Congress can waive its own restrictions, and often has.) Jayapal and Pocan assured progressives that they would propose legislation to change the law, a move that bolstered Pelosi and sidelined a messy intraparty debate.
Rounds 1 and 2 between the Democratic establishment and the Tea Party of the Left went to the establishment.