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For the 'Squad,' a Split-Screen Existence in and out of Congress

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 7/19/2019 Natalie Andrews, Siobhan Hughes
a group of people standing in front of a crowd © Tom Williams/Zuma Press

WASHINGTON—After weeks in the news because of her disputes with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and being on the receiving end of insults from President Trump, Rep. Ilhan Omar marched out of the Capitol Thursday afternoon, bringing traffic to a halt on Independence Avenue by the Mall, and told a gaggle of reporters not to stampede a photographer who fell in the melee.

“For the sake of a story, don’t kill each other,” she said.

As members of Congress go, Ms. Omar (D-Minn.) and the other three Democratic members of the self-described “squad” of new progressives already were celebrities for the impact they made when they arrived in Congress in January. She, with Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts met at a media interview in freshmen orientation and when Ms. Ocasio-Cortez posted a photo of the four on Instagram with the caption “squad,” the name stuck.

Since then, however, they have led a split-screen existence in the Democratic Party, inside and outside Congress.

In the chamber, they have frequently rankled colleagues and stolen the spotlight with their controversies and they have been in a long-running dispute over policy and priorities with Mrs. Pelosi, with Ms. Ocasio-Cortez recently suggesting that the speaker was singling them out as people “of color.” She also compared southern border detention centers to concentration camps.

They have pushed, against party leadership’s wishes, for Mr. Trump’s impeachment. When she was sworn in earlier this year, Ms. Tlaib told a crowd of supporters that “we’re going to impeach the motherf-----”, overshadowing the inauguration of the new Democratic-controlled House.

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Ms. Omar in February sent tweets that tied Jews to money and political influence. A month later, at an event in Washington, she accused politicians and special-interest groups trying to pressure her and others to support Israel of trying to “push for allegiance to a foreign country,” drawing rebukes that she was being anti-Semitic from lawmakers in both parties. A resulting House vote originally proposed to condemn anti-Semitism morphed, under pressure from the squad and the progressive caucus, into a diffused resolution condemning all forms of hate and eclipsed Democrats’ passage of an anticorruption bill. And they have threatened to back primary challenges to Democratic lawmakers they don’t view as sufficiently progressive.

Their legislative track records, meanwhile, have been scant, which isn’t unusual for freshmen, but some of their initiatives have been seized on by the opposition. The only vote that Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal environmental plan has received, for instance, was in the Senate when GOP Majority Leader Mitch McConnell forced a vote to put Democratic senators on record for supporting what even many Democrats view as an unworkable plan.

It has all grated on several of their Democratic colleagues. Some avoid being in pictures with squad members, fearing that it will lead to campaign ads. Others say it doesn’t matter; such ads are being photoshopped anyway.

“I’m tired of the controversy,” said Rep. Ben McAdams, a Utah Democrat. “I came here because I want to get things done and believe there are good people and good ideas in both parties. I just want to get back to work.”

On Wednesday evening, three of the four squad members sought to patch up relations with other Democratic freshmen and requested a meeting over drinks in the Longworth congressional office building. It did little to mend relations, according to several people familiar with the matter. Representatives of the four declined to comment.

But outside of Congress, the squad has had an outsize effect on steering the party faithful to the left, in part because of their dexterity of social media. They have been magnets for the presidential aspirants who are vying for the party’s nomination.

Last week, Sen. Kamala Harris of California and Ms. Ocasio-Cortez introduced a bill intended to remove barriers to obtaining federal housing assistance for people with criminal records and their families.

Ms. Omar released legislation last month alongside Bernie Sanders, senator from Vermont and presidential aspirant, that would cancel student loan debt.

The two were at dinner Wednesday evening when supporters of Mr. Trump chanted “send her home” at a rally with the president in North Carolina, echoing a racist tweet he had sent earlier in the week about the four women.

Mr. Sanders’s campaign used the moment in a fundraising email the next day, with a photo of the two eating. Beto O’Rourke, a former Democratic congressman from Texas, another presidential hopeful, also sent a fundraising email over the incident.

By the end of June, Ms. Omar herself had raised $1.4 million for the 2020 election cycle, while Ms. Ocasio-Cortez had raised nearly $2 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics—huge numbers for freshmen members of Congress. Ms. Tlaib had raised nearly $620,000, and Ms. Pressley had raised $381,000.

“When the squad has been under attack, solidarity from activists has been through the roof,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. While the vast majority of Democrats in Congress have supported Mrs. Pelosi in her tangles with the squad, Mr. Green said it was the speaker who needs to rethink her approach.

“If Pelosi truly were as strategic as people think she is, she would be figuring out how to guide the power and energy that the squad have on their side in a win-win position for Democrats,” he said. “But instead, she is weirdly trying to take her Michael Jordan off the court."

A spokesman for Mrs. Pelosi said she planned to meet with Ms. Ocasio-Cortez in a week. The speaker’s chief of staff also met with her counterparts for the four lawmakers in a bid to clear the air.

Rep. Debbie Dingell (D., Mich.), who has known Ms. Tlaib for 20 years, says the four women are bringing a new energy to the caucus, as well as highlighting growing pains in the majority. But some Democratic Congress members who face tough election fights worry that Republican efforts to portray the squad as the radical face of the Democratic Party threaten their own chances.

All four are followed almost constantly by trackers with cameras from America Rising PAC, a GOP group. A spokeswoman said the goal is to get footage of them talking about issues that they can tie to the Democratic Party as a whole.

“At the end of the week, we’re defending our own and we’re doing a lot of thinking about how to better and more constructively manage the inevitable disagreements in our caucus,“ said Rep. Jim Himes (D., Conn.) ”There is still some concern about the president’s ability to knock us off plan."

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