First, it was a resolution denouncing violence against anti-abortion groups. Then it was a bill mandating health care providers give care to infants in the extraordinarily rare situation that a baby survives a failed abortion. Then it was a resolution “denouncing the horrors of socialism.” And a few days later, it was a bill to overturn a set of criminal justice reforms passed by the Washington, D.C., city council.
All of these measures—first placed on the floor this term by House Republicans—were political gambits designed to put Democrats in a corner. And, to varying extents, they succeeded, placing Democrats on the record either for or against tough issues.
That’s a new reality for House Democrats, who’ve prided themselves on their “resistance” to Republican legislative priorities in recent years. But now, itching to win back their majority in 2024, House Democrats are picking their battles, going along with some of these GOP “gotcha bills”—as Rep. Morgan McGarvey (D-KY) called them—to avoid the attack ads
“These bills that the Republicans have put out, are putting out, they are poorly written messaging bills that have no purpose other than to divide, when what we should be doing is continuing the progress of the last Congress in a closely divided chamber,” McGarvey, a freshman, said.
And yet, Democrats don’t expect the Republican-led efforts to stop anytime soon. Referendums and resolutions meant for little more than virtue signaling are easy for Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) to put on the floor, unite Republicans, and divide Democrats. And with a slim majority in the House, a Democratic Senate, and President Joe Biden in the White House, that’s mostly all Republicans can do. Certainly, it’s much easier than actually getting legislative achievements written into law.
But even though McCarthy will have to confront the realities of governing at some point, Republicans thus far have been rejoicing in their ability to strong-arm Democrats into bipartisanship.
The D.C. crime bill, for one, came on the heels of the GOP hammering crime as an issue in the 2022 elections. The messaging play is credited as a large part of Republican success in swing districts in New York, where the party made the bulk of its House pickups.
As Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the non-voting representative for D.C., put it in an interview Tuesday, “This probably turns on the rising crime around the country now. It wasn’t the best time to have a crime bill go through.”
Thirty-one Democrats in the House voted with Republicans on the proposal. But after 173 House Democrats voted against a bill, the National Republican Congressional Committee, a campaign arm for House Republicans, launched ads against 15 of them.
For members like Rep. Becca Balint—a freshman Democrat who represents Vermont’s lone, heavily blue seat in the House—decisions on these sorts of messaging bills have been relatively simple. She knows her largely progressive base would support her voting against the D.C. crime bill, or a resolution vaguely denouncing socialism.
But she also knows her Democratic colleagues in swin -districts, which the party dubs as “frontliners,” might not have that sort of breathing room.
“I know that my colleagues from different parts of the country have a different calculation to make. And so for me, I try not to get caught up in what my colleagues are doing. I really want to make sure I’m showing up for the voters of Vermont and I think they would have wanted me to vote the way that I did,” Balint told The Daily Beast.
McGarvey, who’s also voted against the Republican proposals, thinks Democrats have proven they’re unified this Congress—citing their unanimous support for Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries through 15 rounds of speaker votes this January. But he said some bills this Congress, including those messaging gambits put forward by Republicans, will inevitably be handled on “a case by case basis.”
Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA), another safe blue seat, said he also understands the political calculations some House Democrats are making as Republicans look for ways to plot against them.
Beyer said there are some competing schools of thought on how to approach GOP attempts to manipulate Democrats. On votes like denouncing socialism, he said, there’s an argument that you can “just vote yes—just take all the wind out of their sails.”
“If everybody agrees that socialism is a bad thing, then what’s their argument?” he asked.
The other school of thought, however, is to not give space to what Beyer saw as “a stupid resolution.”
“I don’t have to do the smart political thing. I can do what I actually think is the right thing to do,” he said, hailing from his solidly blue seat.
Some Democrats suggested this is about more than Republicans trying to pin Democrats in a corner. In a statement, Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) suggested it’s perhaps the best the Republican conference can really do, given their own fractures.
“In the opening weeks of the 118th Congress, we’ve seen the new Majority distract the American people rather than deliver for them. From fixating on socialism to vilifying women who seek essential reproductive health care, they continue to put forward numerous messaging bills because their Conference is too divided to advance substantive legislation,” Hoyer said.
Those divisions in the Republican conference are proving to be a problem for McCarthy and Co. A debt ceiling deadline is approaching, budget talks are live, and Republicans seem no closer to finding consensus on either.
While Democrats in the House are being challenged on whether to bend or break on a vote-by-vote basis, Senate Democrats have some breathing room. Still, they accept House Republicans will have some power over them as must-pass bills come closer to fruition.
But even then, Democrats say they have to be selective about where they offer wiggle room.
“We should totally be prepared to negotiate on the budget… We should be totally prepared to bend over backwards to get a deal on the budget,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) told The Daily Beast.
“We should not be negotiating those budget cuts or revenue increases over the question of the sovereignty of American debt,” he added.
Meanwhile, those House Democrats facing at least a year-and-a-half more of tedious votes are banking that their voters won’t really hold messaging bills against vulnerable incumbents.
“When you’ve got a conference that’s pushing bills… they’re messaging bills, they’re not on governing, right, whether it’s on abortion or trans kids or socialism, right. This is not about actually doing work,” Balint said of the proposals and resolutions Republicans are putting forward.
“I’m just skeptical that it really makes a whole lot of difference. We spend so much time worrying about messaging,” Beyer said, talking about the impact controversial votes could have on Democrats running for re-election.
“But ultimately people are voting on how are their lives changed,” he added.
This post was originally published on Daily Beast