Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her top deputies are working to ease long-simmering anxiety among battleground freshmen, which has intensified amid fears that impeachment could creep into 2020 and make many of them one-term members.
Pelosi will bring in AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka on Tuesday to speak with freshman Democrats, many of whom have been privately demanding quicker action on President Donald Trump’s trade deal, according to multiple people familiar with the meeting.
The private huddle with the labor leader — at a make-or-break moment for the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement — is an attempt to calm concerns of swing-district Democrats who fear their agenda isn’t breaking through with the public and are increasingly frustrated by policy stalemates in Washington.
And senior Democrats are also privately assuring moderates that they hope to wrap up their impeachment probe by Christmas, despite Pelosi saying over the weekend she has “no idea” whether the House will finish its inquiry by the end of the year.
“Lots of people are anxious, wanting to know where things are,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), a Pelosi ally and member of the tight-lipped trade working group negotiating with the administration.
“It's good to impart to them what we've done, what we've been working on for the last several months,” she added. “It’s great for them to hear from Rich Trumka about what are the issues that are unresolved.”
The idea to bring Trumka and freshman Democrats together came after a meeting last Thursday when freshman panic reached a fever pitch, when more than a dozen moderates organized a dramatic show of support for Trump’s trade deal. The vulnerable Democrats delivered fiery speeches calling for a floor vote as soon as possible and warning that their majority will be imperiled if they don’t have accomplishments to tout back home.
For those Democrats, the only acceptable solution is approving the trade deal before Congress leaves for the Christmas holidays — in the middle of a month already jammed with impeachment proceedings and multiple government funding deadlines.
“If labor would say that they were accepting of the agreements that we’ve been pushing in the working group, you could certainly speed it up,” said House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.), who has been leading the trade negotiations. “But at the same time, you’ve got to make sure that we’ve got a broad, broad alliance of labor. Rich Trumka is really important to this.”
Several Democrats with knowledge of the Trumka meeting said it’s still a mystery to many just what the powerful labor leader will say, though they hope it will "calm the waters."
Moderate freshmen are hoping he gives his blessing to the USMCA deal, overcoming what those lawmakers see as the last major hurdle to getting the trade package to the floor this year.
But progressives, many of whom are still opposed to the plan, are hoping Trumka might serve as a line of defense by convincing vulnerable freshmen that rushing into a deal that doesn’t meet all of Democrats’ priorities might be worse than no deal.
“I think it’s neither,” said a senior Democratic aide. “It’s understanding where each other is coming from.”
Trumka, who met with both Pelosi and then the Congressional Progressive Caucus at the end of October, has been publicly cautious about the trade deal — careful not to dismiss it completely but stopping far short of giving it his final sign off. A spokesman for Trumka declined to comment on the Tuesday meeting.
The labor leader has told Democrats that the AFL-CIO plans to ultimately take a yes or no position on the trade deal, though few expect that he is ready to make that announcement on Tuesday.
Pelosi and her deputies have long attempted to soften the blow of impeachment for their most vulnerable members — including a blatant effort last week to refocus attention on the caucus’ policy wish list.
A deal on trade talks that trickled along for months was suddenly “imminent,” Pelosi declared last week. A key Democratic chairman presented plans for a massive infrastructure package at a caucus-wide meeting. A monthslong attempt by farm-state Democrats to revive the Export-Import Bank finally reached the floor.
But even with an obvious public push for Democratic policy issues, several freshmen say they’re losing patience with lengthy delays on legislation, including Pelosi’s signature drug pricing bill. That bill, which had been expected to reach the floor this fall, is now expected to come up in December.
“I was antsy on Day One. It’s not OK to run on something and then not do it. And that’s why we’ve got to do it,” Rep. Max Rose (D-N.Y.) said of the health care bill, which he said has been stalled by “special interest” groups.
“All the time were doing this, you need to spend that time arguing and debating and discussing infrastructure, and discussing prescription drugs,” added Rep. Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey, one of just two Democrats who has opposed the impeachment inquiry.
Top Democrats had long operated with an understanding that the House’s impeachment inquiry would end by year’s end, tempering its effect on the caucus’ must-win 2020 races to keep the House.
But Pelosi is now leaving open the possibility that the impeachment probe could drift into the early months of next year — a worst-case scenario for dozens of Democrats running in districts that Trump won.
Meanwhile, House Democrats are just beginning to get a glimpse of the GOP’s onslaught of attack ads on impeachment.
Conservative group American Action Network launched its biggest ad buy to date — $7 million in television and digital ads, mostly hitting the most vulnerable 30 House Democrats and urging them to vote against impeachment.
The sense of frustration among moderates is only likely to grow if the House’s impeachment probe slips into January or February — further complicating Democratic attempts to clear high-profile legislation they promised during the 2018 midterms.
“It is very important for the caucus and certainly for the freshman members that labor be on board with this agreement,” Rep. Katherine Clark of Massachusetts, vice chair of the Democratic Caucus, said of the Tuesday trade meeting.
“We're looking forward to getting a chance to talk with [Trumka] and have a dialogue about how close we are and how we can close this deal.”
Megan Cassella contributed to this report.