Moderate Dems Should Reconsider Their Votes on Motions to Recommit

When Nancy Pelosi and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are agreeing on matters of procedural voting, you get the idea it’s significant. (Photo Credit: Julio Obscura/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

I don’t always agree with Nancy Pelosi. Neither does Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But I think all three of us are in accord on the point that moderate Democrats should be wary of Republican attempts to use motions to recommit to divide the party, and this to me speaks volumes.

First, a little backdrop: what the heck is a motion to recommit? According to an archived page on the official House of Representatives website under the banner of the late Democratic representative Louise Slaughter:

The motion to recommit provides one final opportunity for the House to debate and amend a measure, typically after the engrossment and third reading of the bill, before the Speaker orders the vote on final passage. The motion is the prerogative of the Minority party and in many cases constitutes the Minority’s one opportunity to obtain a vote on an alternative or a proposal to improve the measure. In the case of a bill or a joint resolution, the Rules of the House prohibit the Rules Committee from reporting a special rule that denies a motion to recommit with instructions.

As this synopsis goes on to explain, there are two types of motions to recommit: those with and without instructions. In the case of the former, when the motion is adopted, the measure is reported back to the House with the instructed amendment, the House votes on the amendment, and if it is adopted, then the measure goes through engrossment (preparation of an official printed copy of a measure as it has been modified), an additional reading, and final passage. In the case of the latter, the motion, when adopted, sends a piece of legislation back to committee without a final vote. Scintillating stuff, I know.

Frequently, motions to recommit have been simple matters of procedure. The minority party seeks to modify a bill, party-line votes occur, end of story. Increasingly of late, however, motions to recommit are being weaponized by the minority party—in this case, the Republican Party—to sway centrist Democrats on “wedge” issues, notably those from what are considered “swing” districts.

This brings us up to speed and to the events of the past two weeks or so. Ed Kilgore, writing for New York Magazine, penned an article about a recent flare-up of tensions within the Democratic Party over one of these last-minute motions that actually got added to a bill as an amendment. The crux of the legislation was devoted to closing the gun show loophole. Seems fair, sensible. The problem arose when 26 Democrats voted in favor of a motion to recommit that added language instructing law enforcement officials to notify ICE if an “illegal immigrant” tries to purchase a gun.

For someone like Ocasio-Cortez, who made “abolish ICE” part of her campaign platform and who represents a district very sensitive to the Trump administration’s more hostile tone toward immigrant populations (the use of the phrase “illegal immigrant,” in it of itself, is a sticking point), having to vote on a measure that essentially makes her choose between gun safety and immigrant rights is understandably awkward. For Speaker Pelosi, an establishment Democrat charged with keeping the peace in her house, the breaking of ranks is, if nothing else, a bad look for the party. The whole episode feeds into a media narrative desperate to sow the seeds of conflict between and within the major political parties (and sell subscriptions).

For the moderate Democrats who voted “yea” on the motion to recommit, however, they present their own grievances, buoyed by the objections of someone like AOC. Ocasio-Cortez, for one, represents a non-competitive district. Xochitl Torres Small, conversely, represents New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional District, which went for Donald Trump in the 2016 election by more than 10 points, and she is cited within Kilgore’s article as bristling at AOC’s criticisms. As these centrists would aver, it’s easy to preach party unity when you’re sitting in deep blue territory but it’s a horse of a different color when you hail from a locale in which border security is a more contentious and relevant topic.

Making matters worse is the insinuation that critics of Democrats who voted with Republicans on motions to recommit could face primary changes if they continue to step across the aisle in bad faith. Kilgore references a Washington Post article on this same set of events, in which one of Ocasio-Cortez’s spokespeople, Corbin Trent, is quoted as saying Democrats who side with Republicans “are putting themselves on a list.” That remark, in its vagueness, has been interpreted as a warning to these moderates that progressives will support primary challengers looking to unseat them in upcoming elections. As you would expect, this news was not particularly well-received.

Josh Gottheimer, co-chair of the centrist Problem Solvers Caucus, called this purported list “Nixonian” in its applications while maintaining that the Democratic Party needs a “big tent” to remain in control of the House. Ocasio-Cortez later clarified that she isn’t threatening to primary Gottheimer or anyone else and that she simply was frustrated at being compelled to vote for a pro-ICE provision within the gun show loophole bill in light of the last-minute changes and the short timetable for a vote. Her “list” comment, if anything, was a heads-up to Gottheimer and other Problem Solvers that they ran the risk of being added to a list of potential primary challenges or siding with Republicans—not that she would be the one leading the charge.

I have become familiar with Josh Gottheimer through my participation in political activism groups based in and around New Jersey’s district, and speaking as a direct observer, I find his whole involvement with the motion to recommit and his subsequent comments to be disingenuous and made in poor taste. It’s true that Josh’s district is a more competitive one. For him to lobby criticisms while serving as co-chair of a Problem Solvers Caucus that, of late, has seemingly caused more problems than it has solved—and which refuses to provide a list of its members even when directly asked—frames his own pleas for party unity in an odd context.

This is especially so when he has spent the better part of this past week serving as the pro-Israel lobby’s attack dog/shameless defender. With all the time and energy spent admonishing Ilhan Omar after she wished to advance a legitimate conversation about the influence of lobbyist money in American politics, he could be, you know, actually holding a real town hall to interact with and field the concerns of his constituents or, say, taking a meaningful stance on immigration and Pres. Trump’s hateful rhetoric. But yours is a swing district. I forgot that means you can’t be held accountable, Rep. Gottheimer.


Ed Kilgore has these parting words for Nancy Pelosi and the rest of the House Democrats regarding the strife brought out about by party members breaking ranks:

These tensions create some serious problems for Nancy Pelosi, who must cater to every faction in her caucus. One option for her is simply to impose party discipline and insist moderates bite the bullet on cleverly designed Republican poison-pill amendments. As she and others pointed out in the caucus meeting, Republicans managed to vote down similar Democratic gambits routinely when they controlled the House, adopting a “just say no” party line on all procedural motions from the other side of the aisle.

Alternatively, Pelosi may have to rethink how much value there really is for her caucus and party in “messaging” bills like the gun measure, which is about as likely to be considered in the Republican-controlled Senate as a bill to double Planned Parenthood’s funding. A symbolic gesture toward an important if presently unachievable goal like better gun regulation is a lot more effective if Democrats can agree in advance not to let themselves get distracted by Republican hijinks. The last thing they need is a public “struggle for the soul of the Democratic Party,” with media hounds eagerly feeding on every morsel of conflict.

In a sense, I agree with Josh Gottheimer that the Democratic Party needs to be able to accommodate differences of opinion and nuanced arguments across issues. While a large degree of consensus is to be expected keeping the party’s ideals in mind, positions evolve and debates can be had. In some cases, deviations from the party line can be cheered rather than bemoaned. They reveal a capacity for independent thought and a willingness to stand apart in a substantive way. It’s something I wish more congressional Republicans would do instead of trading in their backbones for MAGA hats.

These sentiments presume, of course, that these motions to recommit and other “debates” are made in good faith. More and more, however, the evidence suggests this is not the case or that matters which have no meaningful point of compromise are approached with a spirit of capitulation. Kilgore is correct that the gun show loophole bill is the kind that is all but dead on arrival in the Senate. The best the GOP could hope for was to get ICE language added to the bill and to cause a ruckus among the Dems. If the back-and-forth between Gottheimer and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and Nancy Pelosi’s public call to order are any indication, Republicans succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. The Democrats, in this instance, looked weak—over a procedural vote, no less. House Democrats should be smarter than that.

Additionally, on ICE specifically, the Democratic Party needs to understand that defections under the guise of working within “political realities” undermine the value of the party’s messaging as a whole in its appeal to diversity. How does one reconcile putting women and children in cages and having people die while in federal custody with respect for communities of color as a function of humanity as a whole? Why is this even treated like a debate? It’s cruel and immoral, and Democrats should not be afraid to condemn these crimes.

Besides, it’s not as if concerns about border security require such barbarism. Even if these fears are overblown, there are ways to address the immigration issue without inhumane conditions or a costly wall and while holding relevant federal agencies accountable. Staying silent or treading lightly in the name of political expediency only invites further attempts by the Republican Party to chip away at the Democrats’ unified front.

Even with “messaging” bills, votes matter, especially in a day and age when information is so visible and so rapidly spread. Moderate Democrats should reconsider their votes on motions to recommit made in bad faith—and reflect on their commitment to their party’s ideals in doing so.