Freshman House Democrats are ready to shut down the shutdown.
The new class of 60-plus members has been in Congress for less than week only to see the partial government shutdown consume the Capitol and grind nearly everything else to a halt — including action on their campaign promises to overhaul Washington and deliver for voters back home.
Story Continued Below
Now, as the shutdown drags into Day 19, the frustration is starting to reach a tipping point for some who fear the prolonged stalemate could do real political damage in vulnerable Democratic districts.
“If I am getting comments and contact from my constituents expressing concern that the Democrats are not prioritizing security, then I think we can do better,” said freshman Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.).
Spanberger, who sits in a district won by President Donald Trump, spoke up at a closed-door caucus meeting Wednesday morning to warn Democrats were losing the messaging war in her district and needed to be more clear about the kind of border security measures they support.
Democrats remain largely united behind their leadership’s shutdown strategy of refusing to negotiate with Trump on his border wall demand and pressuring Senate Republicans to take up House-passed bills to open up the government. But the first fissures are starting to show.
The freshmen arranged an impromptu 90-minute meeting over the weekend at a retreat in rural Virginia because several new members were “freaking out” about the ongoing shutdown and the party’s strategy, according to a Democratic source who requested anonymity to speak candidly.
“I don’t think that it’s the Democrats in the House’s fault that we are in a shutdown,” said Rep. Colin Allred (D-Texas), who attended the huddle in Williamsburg, Va., and is one of two freshman class presidents. “But I do think it’s setting us back in terms of those coalitions we’re trying to build.”
One senior Democratic lawmaker who talked to multiple freshmen after the meeting said there is “a lot of drama” within the class about how to handle the shutdown.
“Do they stay in Washington or do they leave? Does our leadership understand that they’re getting blamed? Do they take their pay or do they give it back?” said the senior Democrat, explaining conversations with freshmen in recent days. “You have a very active freshman class. [And] leadership itself doesn’t agree on how to proceed. …what bills to bring up, what order to bring them up.”
A senior Democratic aide tried to downplay the tension, saying part of the reason new members have anxiety is that their offices aren’t fully established. Many of them still haven’t fully set up their official House email so they’re not receiving caucus talking points that are regularly being distributed. The group even had to have a letter Speaker Nancy Pelosi sent last Tuesday on the shutdown read aloud during the meeting because several of them hadn’t seen it.
“That’s what’s going to happen with freshmen,” the aide said, citing typical “growing pains” that occur at the start of a new Congress. “They’re going to think the sky is falling. This isn’t for the faint of heart around here.”
Most Democrats argue they have the political advantage — pointing to polling that shows the public mostly blames Trump for the shutdown and that a number of Republican lawmakers are now publicly calling to reopen the government. Top Democrats predict as many as a dozen GOP lawmakers will cross the aisle and support their piecemeal government funding bills designed to ratchet up pressure on Senate leaders to act.
“Our votes are going to grow — they wouldn’t be sending the vice president and the Homeland Security secretary up here if we had a problem,” said a senior Democratic aide.
But it’s not just freshmen who are questioning the strategy pursued by Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. Some veteran Democrats are open to the idea of trying to broker a wide-ranging immigration deal that would include border wall money in exchange for Democratic priorities like securing protections for Dreamers.
Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.) stood up in the closed-door meeting Wednesday to urge fellow Democrats to consider trading some amount of wall funding for legal protections for the thousands of young immigrants who stand to be deported.
“I think it’s something that should be in the discussion here, because things are obviously going so slowly,” Foster said. “I think this is ground that most Democrats should feel comfortable standing on.”
The Illinois Democrat said he’s talked to Dreamers in his own district who have told him to “hold my nose and vote” for a deal.
And several House freshmen are signaling they may be open to a compromise with Republicans to get government agencies running again.
“We are getting pressure from both sides of ‘don’t back down, don’t back down’ but also that these are real people who are hurting and my district is one of them with thousands of federal workers,” said Rep. Katie Hill (D-Calif.), one of two freshman representatives in House leadership.
“I’m not going to rule anything out, I really am not,” Allred added when asked if he would support some border wall funding in exchange for Democratic immigration priorities.
Moderate Democrats in the New Democrat Coalition pressed Pelosi later Wednesday to lay out a strategy for how to get out of the shutdown fight as well as her plans for House Democrats in the coming months. Spanberger and another freshman lawmaker, Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), stood up at the meeting to voice concerns about the direction of the party.
Liberal lawmakers, however, are not eager to make a deal with Trump on the wall.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, spoke after Foster in the morning caucus meeting and shot down his Dreamers-for-wall trade. “I think one person got up and said something about it but I think there was a pretty immediate response from others,” she said.
Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.) said that in her district, “[Dreamers] are saying, ‘We don’t want to be used as a pawn in this whole discussion.’”
Meanwhile, Rep. Lucy McBath (D-Ga.), who attended the weekend freshman session, said several lawmakers couldn’t attend in person because they were back in their districts to deal with the shutdown fallout.
“A lot of new members have spent a lot of time already staying in their districts, trying to make sure the people they represent are giving some sense of comfort during all of this,” McBath said, adding that she’s returning this weekend to assess the impact in her district.
McBath, who narrowly won her seat last November, wouldn’t comment on whether Democrats should put more money on the table for a border barrier, but urged party leaders to deal.
“I hope that we can all come to a compromise because that’s the way things get done,” the Georgia Democrat said. “If we don’t compromise, the American people are the ones who get hurt. Right now, they are hanging in the balance.”
Rachael Bade and Laura Barron-Lopez contributed to this report.