The progressive, Trump-resistant first-term Democrats in the House of Representatives – a younger, female-dominated, and more racially diverse class – have wielded their new powers with relish.
They’re pushing the party further left with ideas like the Green New Deal. They’re directly challenging Washington’s conventional wisdom, from foreign policy to campaign finance. And they’re aggressively pursuing the Trump administration. Along the way, through committee hearings, TV appearances, and a savvy use of social media, they’re building a brand for themselves.
But at the same time they’re soaring, the newcomers are also stumbling. They’ve overreached on occasion and bumped up against resistance from the political establishment in Washington. The pattern is a familiar one for the most vocal members of a brand-new, highly motivated majority – conservative Republicans seized their moment in similar ways when they came to power eight years earlier. But this time, female lawmakers are also making history.
Among the leaders of this unofficial caucus is Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the inescapable 29-year-old New York Democrat. Ocasio-Cortez’s haphazard rollout of her “Green New Deal” environmental proposal, her viral line of questioning about campaign-finance laws, and her declaration of victory as Amazon pulls out of its plans to expand to Queens have all kept her name and her agenda at the forefront of the debate in Washington.
During her Feb. 7 appearance on the Oversight committee hearing on a relatively moderate ethics bill, Ocasio-Cortez castigated “dark money” and a “fundamentally broken” system of campaign finance. One video of her exchange shared on Twitter has received more than 38 million views, suggesting Ocasio-Cortez has captured some part of the progressive imagination.
Less than two months into the new Congress, there hasn’t been time for much more than that. The real test will come when Ocasio-Cortez and her freshmen peers try to pass legislation.
“Like all new members of Congress she’s getting adjusted to compressing a lot of facts and feelings and ideas into just five minutes,” Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Democrat from Maryland, told CNN last week. “From my understanding, it was a very creative way of compressing a lot of thought and passion into a few minutes. That’s always the challenge.”
There’s also a learning curve. The Republican-selected witness for the hearing, former Federal Election Commission chairman Bradley A. Smith, tells CNN Ocasio-Cortez misinterpreted his public statements about campaign-finance law. “She didn’t know what she was talking about. She thought her own campaign funds were dark money. They weren’t,” Smith says. “She didn’t seem to be aware of how PACs operate, and she would have been a person who really should have been trying to learn in the hearing and she wasn’t.”
Many have taken the opportunities in committee hearings to push their agendas and challenge the Trump administration through big moments designed to grab attention, go viral, and earn plaudits from like-minded liberals. They’ve also made themselves targets for criticism and potential headaches for their own party leadership.
Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota had been drawing harsh responses from both Republicans and Democrats this week over tweets implying support for Israel in Congress was driven by political donations from Jews. Democratic leadership has so far resisted calls to strip Omar of her seat on the Foreign Relations Committee, where on Wednesday she drew further attention to herself.
Questioning Elliott Abrams, the State Department’s newly named special envoy to Venezuela, Omar first misidentified him as “Mr. Adams” before reciting a series of statements about Abrams’s 1991 conviction for withholding information from Congress during the Iran-Contra probe. She also questioned whether his support for anti-communist forces in Central America during his stint at the State Department during the Reagan administration meant he supported genocide committed by some of those forces. “That is a ridiculous question,” Abrams responded.
Others have stumbled in their bids for made-for-social-media moments. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, the 48-year-old freshman Democrat from Florida, was lost in the middle of her questioning of acting attorney general, Matt Whitaker, last week. “Um, I have some more questions here,” Mucarsel-Powell said as she rifled through papers, the seconds ticking down on her precious five minutes. It had been four hours since Whitaker and the committee began, not counting breaks for lunch and votes, and as a new member of the House, she came near the end of the round of questioning.
“All this time I’m waiting, and I can’t find the questions,” Mucarsel-Powell said after several seconds of awkward silence. An aide handed her a sheet of paper. “Thank you!” she said, relieved to have her next question finally in front of her. “This pertains to, also, an issue that’s very close and dear to my heart, LGBTQ issues.”
Mucarsel-Powell proceeded to ask Whitaker why the Department of Justice had, in 2017, rewritten a memo on sex discrimination in the workplace to exclude transgendered people from the protections of the Civil Rights Act. “Do you stand by the department’s decision to reverse its position that Title VII protects transgender people from discrimination?” she said. Whitaker began protesting, “Congresswoman, I think a plain reading—.”
She cut him off. “Just answer the question,” Mucarsel-Powell said, pressing Whitaker on whether he believed members of the LGBT community should not be protected from workplace discrimination by federal law. As Whitaker hedged and reverted to explaining the DOJ’s position, Mucarsel-Powell shot back, demanding a “yes or no.” The two went back and forth like this before the congresswoman’s time expired, with dreams of a viral moment dashed.
What frustrates Mia Love, the former two-term Republican congresswoman from Utah and a CNN contributor, is the sense that new members are increasingly playing to social media. “They’re making this really about them,” Love says. “I think they’re trying to make moments go viral, to gain popularity.
Love, who lost her re-election bid in November, has also been critical of Donald Trump for his divisive rhetoric. The President’s own Twitter activity has contributed to a change in the norms of political discourse on social media.
“It’s one thing to be loud, it’s another thing to be heard,” Love adds.
Asked Thursday if new members had an “outsized influence” thanks to these viral moments, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said “no.”
“The members come, they bring their enthusiasms, their priorities, and we welcome that. They are not programmed, they are spontaneous, prepared, and I’m proud of them,” she said.
Pelosi has kind words for her new colleagues now. But their approach may eventually wear thin. Just ask John Boehner or Paul Ryan, who during their speakerships dealt with a similar dynamic from the most conservative Republicans in the conference. Grandstanding on committees and bucking leadership became standard operating procedure for a sizable wing of the last GOP majority, driving Boehner to resign and Ryan to retire from Congress before the age of 50.
On Thursday, there was another hint of what might be coming Pelosi’s way. Just after House Democrats had finished negotiating a spending resolution with Senate Republicans, Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, and two more freshmen Democrats, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib, issued a joint statement. The new members blasted the agreement for giving more money to “abusive agencies,” including the Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security.
“That is why we intend to vote no on this funding package,” the four members wrote, echoing a phrase so often deployed by members of the Republican majority they have just replaced.
CNN’s Haley Byrd contributed to this report.