WASHINGTON — Speaker Nancy Pelosi said they have no following in Congress. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York shot back that she and three of her fellow liberal freshmen, darlings of the left known collectively as “the squad,” are wielding the real power in the party.
Six months into the new House Democratic majority, long-simmering tensions between the speaker and the squad — Representatives Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts — have boiled over in the most public of ways, igniting a flurry of criticism of Ms. Pelosi among liberal activists and reinvigorating a debate within the party about how best to stand up to President Trump.
The fire was lit by a $4.6 billion border aid package passed by Congress that the quartet argued had empowered Mr. Trump’s immigration crackdown. But the forest already was a tinder box, dried by the monthslong debate over impeachment, earlier dust-ups with Ms. Omar and Ms. Tlaib and over Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal, and looming debates over a $15-an-hour minimum wage bill and funding for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The squabble is all the more notable because it pits Ms. Pelosi, the liberal San Francisco congresswoman who is the most powerful elected woman in American history, against a group of progressive Democratic women of color who have broken barriers of their own as part of the most diverse class ever to serve in the House.
“This is an inevitable tension between a few progressives with one priority, which is their ideology, and a speaker with many priorities, including preserving the majority in the House, electing a Democratic president against Trump, and responding to the consensus of her caucus,” said Steve Israel, a Democrat and former representative of New York. “To the extent that it distracts from Donald Trump and becomes a circular firing squad among Democrats, it can be lethal.”
Others see an old guard defending itself against powerful young voices demanding change.
“Those freshman members are breaking through, and they’re building a movement, and the more power that movement gains, the more persuasive they will be to Pelosi,” said Brian Fallon, a former spokesman for Senator Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton.
The contretemps began when Maureen Dowd, the New York Times columnist, asked Ms. Pelosi about the squad’s fury over the border aid package. The speaker noted that the group had failed to persuade any other Democrats to join them last month in voting against the House’s version of the bill, which placed restrictions on how the administration could spend the money and demanded standards of care at migrant detention centers.
“All these people have their public whatever and their Twitter world,” Ms. Pelosi told Maureen Dowd in an interview published over the weekend by The Times. “But they didn’t have any following. They’re four people, and that’s how many votes they got.”
Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, the Queens congresswoman who upset a 20-year Democratic incumbent in a primary and who has carved out a reputation as an outspoken and social-media savvy firebrand in the halls of Congress, responded tartly in a string of Twitter posts — a public show of defiance to the leader of her party 50 years her senior.
“That public ‘whatever’ is called public sentiment,” she wrote to her more than 4.7 million followers in a message that was recirculated 10,000 times and “liked” by 65,000 people. “And wielding the power to shift it is how we actually achieve meaningful change in this country.”
Ms. Omar chimed in with a tweet of solidarity. “Patetico!” she wrote on her personal Twitter account, with more than 1 million followers. “You know they’re just salty about WHO is wielding the power to shift ‘public sentiment’ these days, sis. Sorry not sorry.”
Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff, Saikat Chakrabarti, went much further, arguing in a series of tweets that his boss and her first-term colleagues were better at leading than Ms. Pelosi was, that Democratic leaders were not willing to fight for their principles, and that the speaker had failed to deliver any Democratic victories while shrinking from impeachment proceedings against Mr. Trump.
“Pelosi claims we can’t focus on impeachment because it’s a distraction from kitchen table issues,” Mr. Chakrabarti wrote. “But I’d challenge you to find voters that can name a single thing House Democrats have done for their kitchen table this year. What is this legislative mastermind doing?”
The back and forth has less to do with ideological differences between Ms. Pelosi and the young crop of progressives than their divergent styles and agendas.
Ms. Pelosi, whose legislative triumphs include muscling the Affordable Care Act through the House in 2010, has focused on using the House Democrats’ power to challenge Mr. Trump by advancing legislation that appeals to the broadest possible swath of Democrats, including the more than two dozen moderate lawmakers elected in districts carried by the president in 2016. She has kept the fractious caucus united on measures addressing health care, gun safety, election reforms and immigration, even as divisions persist over whether to impeach Mr. Trump, a step she has so far refused to endorse.
The speaker is also giving voice to an undercurrent of resentment among Democratic lawmakers toward Ms. Ocasio-Cortez and her group, whom they see as using their megaphones to sow intraparty divisions and burnish their own brands without achieving any results for Democrats.
Ms. Pelosi seemed to allude to that on Monday when she was asked to clarify her remarks to Ms. Dowd.
“It wasn’t dismissive; it was a statement of fact,” Ms. Pelosi told a reporter in San Francisco on Monday, saying while most House Democrats had “voted to protect the children” by supporting the House’s humanitarian aid bill, the squad had chosen not to. “They were four who argued against the bill, and they were the only four who voted against the bill. All I said was nobody followed their lead.”
“They have a following in the public,” Ms. Pelosi added. “I’m just talking about in the Congress.”
The foursome has helped to redefine their party’s message, pushing multi-trillion-dollar ideas like the Green New Deal, Medicare for all, and tuition-free college that have drawn broad rhetorical support, including from Democratic presidential candidates. But they have yet to translate their vision into concrete legislative achievement.
The squad and its allies argue that they are tapping into the real energy in the Democratic base with their uncompromising and unapologetic stances.
“Representing the movement that actually helped to put everyone in Congress into office and give Pelosi her gavel is a critical role, and they’ve been at the forefront of pushing the boundaries of what is possible in Congress,” said Leah Greenberg, the executive director of Indivisible, a progressive advocacy group.
Liberal activists tried to use the speaker’s comments to stoke outrage — and to raise money to mount primaries against incumbent Democrats they deem insufficiently liberal.
“AOC and The Squad have changed the entire national debate,” said an email rehashing the spat from the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which offered a colorful “I STAND WITH AOC” sticker to anyone who donated to their work “electing more AOC’s to Congress.”
Mr. Fallon, now the executive director of the grass-roots progressive group Demand Justice, said Ms. Ocasio-Cortez has demonstrated a unique ability to grab the public spotlight for liberal candidates and causes, as she did last week when she visited a migrant detention center in Texas. But Ms. Pelosi has an entirely different mandate, he argued, one that her recent comments may have been designed to subtly convey.
“I think more than anything it’s a challenge to this ascending wing of the party, that if they actually want to move beyond being the protest wing and have leadership follow their strategy, that they need to grow their base of support and leave her with no option,” he said.