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Democrats Face Internal Tensions


It's always the fights inside the family that can get rough. Things got rough this week in the Democratic Party after freshman Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota made more remarks many saw as anti-Semitic. The House finally passed an anti-hate resolution condemning anti-Semitism and - well, a lot of things, I think, including dandruff. Did it solve or aggravate divisions? Susan Davis, NPR congressional correspondent, joins us. Sue, thanks so much for being with us.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: Everything better now?

DAVIS: (Laughter) Well, every Democrat in the end did vote for the resolution, so they were unified in the end, but it certainly did provide a roadmap for the kind of divisions we might see going forward.

SIMON: I want to ask you about that. But first, Representative Omar made remarks, I guess yesterday, calling former President Obama just a pretty face and, quote, "we don't want anybody to get away with murder because they are polished." Let's also recall she began her congressional term by making a thinly veiled suggestion a Republican senator is a closeted gay. Are there Democrats who now think - wonder if what I'll call her gift for pungent expression represents a problem going forward?

DAVIS: You know, she made those remarks about President Obama in an interview with Politico, and in the same interview, she also said exciting things happen when people are uncomfortable. So she may be achieving that aim because she is certainly making people uncomfortable. I do think that these problems will exist within the Democratic Party with or without her where we see this intellectual and policy struggle between a younger freshman class, many of which come from safe districts and are much more liberal and want to move the party in that direction, and maybe a more moderate Democrat, where the majority was won, where they have to appeal to a broader set of people. And that is going to be one of the struggles of this Congress.

SIMON: And let's be specific. Some of these young Democrats coming in, they're - they do not support Israel. They do not believe that President Obama was their idea of a progressive.

DAVIS: That has been one of the fascinating sub dramas that came out of this debate in that I think party leaders and a lot of party chairmen who are older Democrats who come from a different generation about this issue were a bit surprised by the pushback that they received when they wanted to move forward with this resolution. Yes, freshmen like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez came to Representative Omar's defense. There is much more willingness among younger Democrats to be very critical of the U.S.-Israel alliance, and particularly the Israeli government, in a way that I think a different kind of Democrat just wasn't accustomed to hearing that kind of rhetoric. And it's one that does make a lot of Democrats uncomfortable because this had been sort of one of these kind of third rail issues in American politics where you don't speak about that in this way. And a lot of the younger lawmakers are saying, yes, we want to and we will.

SIMON: Senator McConnell on the other side plans to bring up the Green New Deal proposal on the floor. Might that exacerbate tensions between these two wings of the Democratic Party?

DAVIS: You know, it's interesting on this because it's clear that Republicans kind of want to jam Senate Democrats and maybe force some kind of embarrassing vote on the Senate floor, but I think Senate Democrats see this coming. I talked to a lot of Democrats about this this past week, and they're talking about just voting present on the actual resolutions, to not really engage and vote against it.

I also think Republicans have to be a little careful here. While there is a lot in the Green New Deal that they can make fun of or make issues of when there was talks about getting rid of air travel or things like that, but on the substantive issue of climate change, this is an issue that voters care about. And if they're not putting forward policies of their own, it can look like they are maybe mocking the issue. So it's clear that this is more of a political debate and I think one in which Democrats have said - Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has indicated that he wants Democrats to run more aggressively on the issue of climate change going into the 2020 elections.

SIMON: And will the Republicans have their own divisions to contend with when the vote for a national emergency at the border comes up?

DAVIS: It will. It's going to come up for a vote this week. It will pass because of Republican support for it. It's also setting up the first veto of the Trump administration. They do not have the votes on Capitol Hill to override that veto, although Democrats are promising that they will continue to fight the national emergency in the courts.

SIMON: NPR's Sue Davis, thanks very much for being with us.

DAVIS: Oh, you're very welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.