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As Democrats try to unify, a messy spending fight leaves emotions raw

<i>Win McNamee/Getty Images</i><br/>House Speaker Nancy Pelosi departs her weekly press conference in January 2019 in Washington
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Win McNamee/Getty Images
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi departs her weekly press conference in January 2019 in Washington

By Manu Raju, Melanie Zanona and Annie Grayer, CNN

Nancy Pelosi was not happy. The House speaker had cut a hard-fought deal with Republicans to fund every aspect of the government, provide desperately needed aid to Ukraine, and bolster efforts to combat the pandemic.

Then came Rep. Mark Pocan.

In a tense meeting in her office, Pelosi was angry with the Wisconsin Democrat for threatening to oppose the massive spending bill over concerns that the Covid-19 relief money would be offset by clawing back dollars from his home state, according to multiple sources familiar with the matter.

“I was in the firing line,” Pocan conceded to CNN when asked about the incident. “She wasn’t happy with those of us who were upset,” he added, referring to the numerous Democrats who were threatening to join in on the revolt.

The blows did not stop there, even after Pelosi was forced to yank $16 billion in coronavirus relief from the spending package — a major concession the speaker had to make after Republicans insisted the costs be offset and rank-and-file Democrats revolted over the spending cuts.

“He is a member of the Appropriations Committee, undermining the product of the Appropriations Committee,” said a senior Democratic aide familiar with the meeting.

The messy episode is just the latest in a string of setbacks for Democrats, who have been mired in infighting as they struggle to pass their economic agenda, see President Joe Biden’s poll numbers underwater and watch inflation and gas prices on the rise.

The drama is also threatening to overshadow — if not completely derail — the House Democratic Caucus Issues Conference in Philadelphia, their first in-person retreat since before the pandemic. House Democrats had hoped to use the gathering to create a badly needed moment of party unity, especially with their razor-thin majority on the line this fall. Instead, they’ll arrive in the “City of Brotherly Love” at least a day late and with some brand-new emotional baggage — that is, if the retreat happens at all.

“It’s just like a family: you have your disagreements,” Rep. Cori Bush, a Missouri Democrat, told CNN. “You can always come back.”

But, she added: “We’re not here to make friends. We’re here to represent our districts.”

‘We are getting screwed’

Democratic leaders were already cutting it close. With current government funding set to expire at midnight on Friday, they were trying to jam the mammoth, $1.5 trillion spending bill — the text of which was released at 1:30 a.m. ET — through the House on Wednesday afternoon before they boarded buses for their retreat, along with a bill to ban Russian oil imports.

But some rank-and-file Democrats felt blindsided by a plan to use funds from the American Rescue Plan, a pandemic relief bill passed last year, to offset the cost of Covid relief money — part of a concession made to Republicans who were refusing to back the relief money in its current form. The newly negotiated provision would have impacted 30 states, and Democrats representing affected parts of the country argued it would hurt their states by taking away money they had been previously promised.

At least a dozen Democrats threatened to revolt and paraded in and out of Pelosi’s office throughout Wednesday morning and into the afternoon, some noticeably upset and trying to avoid talking to the press. Some of the lawmakers spotted leaving Pelosi’s office include Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Debbie Dingell, both of Michigan, and Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida.

“This deal was cut behind closed doors. Members found out this morning. This is completely unacceptable,” Democratic Rep. Angie Craig of Minnesota told CNN as she walked out of Pelosi’s office. Minnesota was one of 30 states at risk of losing Covid relief funding.

“We are getting screwed,” another member fumed about the deal cut by Pelosi and leaders from both parties.

During his meeting with Pelosi, which included House Appropriations Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern of Massachusetts and other top leaders, Pocan made the case that Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers — who is up for reelection this year — had been promised $225 million worth of relief money, according to a source familiar with the meeting. But the Democrats who cut the deal pushed back, arguing Wisconsin has a surplus and the money isn’t needed. Pocan, however, dug in and said people were promised that money.

“People are expecting it,” Pocan later said to CNN.

In the interview, Pocan chalked it up to a simple disagreement. “I don’t think she meant anything in a malicious and problematic way,” he said of the speaker.

As they scrambled behind the scenes to resolve the impasse, Democratic leadership held a “motion to adjourn” vote open for nearly five hours. But with every hour that passed, the more Democrats derailed their own schedule. Pelosi pushed back her weekly press conference by several hours. Buses never arrived.

Finally, at around 3:30 p.m. ET, leadership closed down the vote and announced they were changing course.

“Things are going exactly according to plan,” McGovern joked, speaking on the House floor. “Everything is beautiful in its own way.”

Meanwhile, Pelosi could barely contain her frustration at a news conference shortly after she announced that they were stripping Covid relief money from the bill.

“Let’s grow up about this, OK? We’re in a legislative process, we have a deadline for keeping the government open, we have a lively negotiation,” she told reporters.

Now it’s unclear if the Covid relief money has a viable path forward. Democrats plan to move a stand-alone relief bill in the House, but that will face GOP opposition and will have a difficult time getting the necessary 60 votes in the Senate.

“I’m frustrated that this continues to be hard,” Rep. Tom Malinowski, a New Jersey Democrat, told CNN. “But I hope senators of both parties will decide that it’s not in our interest to let another Covid variant hit us from overseas and that it would be better for America, not China, to vaccinate the world.”

‘This retreat is cursed’

Once the delay of floor activity became inevitable, the growing question became when and if members would be departing for Philadelphia. The updates of postponements started to trickle in, followed by confusion over what was actually happening.

First, a notice went out telling members not to get on buses at the initially scheduled time. Then, a new schedule went out to members where the departure time from the Capitol and start times for previously scheduled Wednesday night events were listed as “pending” even though it was made clear to members that the plan was still to depart at some point on Wednesday.

The off-the-record happy hour for members and reporters, an evening reception featuring entertainment by Lady Bunny and an opening ceremony were all no longer listed on the schedule.

Even the keynote conversation, which featured Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, was rescheduled to occur on Capitol Hill instead of in Philadelphia, a source told CNN.

There was no place more indicative of how unprepared Democrats were for the squabbling over the omnibus package than Philadelphia. At the time the kick-off event was supposed to start, the press filing room in Philadelphia had only a handful of staffers and just two reporters pecking on laptops waiting for something to happen. With lawmakers still haggling over legislation in Washington, staff in Philadelphia could make no promises as to when the events would start.

Before the floor schedule blew up, some lawmakers’ spouses and family members had already decamped to the retreat and were stuck waiting there without a clear sense of when — or if — members would arrive.

As lawmakers slowly trickled on to the House floor for votes Wednesday evening, Democrats sought to bring some levity to the tense atmosphere.

When asked if the retreat was still happening, Malinowski said: “Didn’t you hear? We’re there right now. This is the metaverse!”

Meanwhile, Rep. John Katko, a retiring New York Republican, lamented that the late-night votes were forcing him to miss a Library of Congress concert where Lionel Richie is being feted with the Gershwin Prize.

“If Katy Perry shows up to the concert tonight, I’m gonna be pissed,” Katko said, only half-jokingly. “This just sucks!”

With lawmakers settling in for a long night, pizza and other takeout orders began streaming into the Capitol and various offices, where Democrats were still stowing their luggage.

By Wednesday evening, however, doubts started to grow that there would even be a retreat, with Democrats scrambling to secure new transportation for their members.

“We’ll see,” Democratic Rep. Pete Aguilar of California, who serves as vice chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, told CNN when asked if Democrats were still scheduled to leave tonight.

“Hope is a very powerful thing. We’re going to try to will this to happen, but it is becoming difficult looking at the clock obviously.”

Pocan quipped that he hoped Lady Bunny was having a nice dinner since members were not there for her performance.

“This retreat is cursed,” Pocan said.

Another Democrat was more succinct.

“What a s***show,” the member said.

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CNN’s Ryan Nobles contributed to this report.

Article Topic Follows: CNN - US Politics

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