Congress

Rep. Derek Kilmer: Disputes among Democrats amount to ‘false divisions’

On health care, campaign finance, immigration and gun control, Democrats are more unified than divided, congressman says

Democratic Rep Derek Kilmer, right, seen here with GOP Rep. Dan Newhouse, also of Washington, says Democrats are more united than divided. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Rep. Derek Kilmer, a Washington Democrat who chairs the moderate, business-friendly New Democrat Coalition, sought to downplay disputes within his own party, calling them “false divisions within the caucus.”   

On health care, campaign finance, immigration and gun control matters, Democrats are more unified than divided, Kilmer told C-SPAN “Newsmakers” in an interview that airs on July 28, despite recent intraparty conflicts on such matters as the border crisis and legislation to raise the minimum wage, leading to heated rhetoric, particularly between progressives and moderates.

“The reality is, I think all Democrats are working to try to move things forward for the American people,” he said.

The focus this week on President Donald Trump’s tweets telling a squad of four liberal Democratic congresswomen to “go back” to where they came from smoothed some of the recent divisions in the party, but they continue to simmer under the surface — so much so that Kilmer and his counterparts at other House Democratic caucuses issued a joint statement Thursday seeking to tamp down appearances of division.  

“House Democrats are a diverse, robust and passionate family. We love our country and are dedicated to making life better for everyday Americans,” Kilmer said along with chiefs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the Blue Dog Coalition, which represents the party’s more conservative flank. “At times, there may be different perspectives on the way forward. That is a hallmark of the legislative process.”

The divisions hit a fever pitch when Saikat Chakrabarti, chief of staff to one of those freshman members, New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, made waves for criticizing Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California for getting “outmaneuvered” by Republicans and for saying that Rep. Sharice Davids, D-Kansas, was allowing “a racist system” by voting for a border funding measure.  

“It’s concerning to the American people to see this sort of dialogue,” Kilmer said.

He added that it’s healthy for members of the same party to debate and discuss policy issues but not to impugn one another.  When asked if Ocasio-Cortez should fire her chief of staff, Kilmer said that’s for her to decide.

“Well, I think at the very least, it’s safe to say that those comments aren’t appropriate,” he said. “It’s up to each member to determine who’s going to work for them and what those standards are. It’s not something that I would allow someone on my team to say publicly or on social media.”  

The hard-charging, high-profile progressive freshmen Democrats — including Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota who was born in Somalia and became the subject of taunts of “send her back” at a Trump rally this week — have been in the spotlight. But Kilmer noted that his New Democrat Coalition has 103 members, making it the largest club within the party in the House. He also said 32 members in seats that Democrats captured from Republicans in the 2018 midterm elections had joined the pro-business coalition.

Kilmer said he hopes lawmakers will come together to focus on legislative priorities, but he added that condemning Trump’s offensive tweets was a “legitimate action” for the House.

The Washington Democrat offered some insight into one of the more unusual actions in the House this week: when Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Missouri, abandoned the chair while presiding over debate to censure the president’s tweets.

Kilmer and Cleaver serve together on the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, a one-year panel that Kilmer chairs and that has been tasked with making bipartisan recommendations about how to update the legislative branch for the modern era.

“He is someone who has really done a lot of thinking about how to drive more civility in the legislative process,” Kilmer said of Cleaver.   As for the modernization committee, Kilmer said he expects the panel to take up about two dozen recommendations in the coming week that aim to curb the high rate of turnover among congressional staffers. He also said the panel was eyeing recommendations to foster more bipartisan interaction especially for new lawmakers.

“Right now, as it so happens, at the beginning of a Congress, Democrats go to their side of the room, Republicans go to their side,” Kilmer said. “The parties often will do retreats where a lot of the discussion is focused on, you know, ‘How do I jab the other party?’”

He also wants to see the House come together on measures to secure the polls, especially from foreign interference.  

“Election security is something that I think a lot of our members of the New Democrat Coalition would like to see forward motion on, because there’s an election coming up in 18 months, and there has not been enough progress to make sure that that will be secure,” he said.  

The coalition typically supports free trade agreements, and Kilmer says there is some hope that a renegotiated North American Free Trade Agreement could make it through Congress. “The short story is quite possibly yes,” though he noted it would require changes to the updated agreement.

Though Kilmer supports a sweeping campaign finance and ethics overhaul, known as HR 1, he has not, like many of his Democratic colleagues, shied away from accepting donations from corporate and industry political action committees. About half of the nearly $700,000 in political donations to his re-election coffers so far this cycle come from PACs connected with companies such as Boeing, Google, Amgen, Walmart and Amazon, among others.

Such PACs are subject to federal election regulations, disclose their contributions and are funded by donations from employees and shareholders of the companies.

Kilmer did not answer the question of whether he felt any pressure to reject such donations and said instead that he’s long been a supporter of campaign finance reform as a way to restore faith in the political system.

“There is a concern for everyday Americans that their voice may be eroded in that process,” he said of the status quo.

The report of Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller, who is set to testify on Capitol Hill next week, was “alarming,” Kilmer said, making it “far too troubling to simply ignore.” Whether anything would change with Mueller’s testimony, Kilmer said, “it’s important that we take this one step at a time and see where the facts lead and we’ll see where things go.”

Kilmer said he has high hopes for the Modernization panel but demurred when asked whether he would seek higher office, or a leadership position, in the future.

“The idea here is not to create a report that gets stuck up on a shelf and ignored, the idea here is to actually make changes so that Congress functions better for the American people,” he said of the modernization committee.

“I really like what I’m doing,” he said, adding that he was drawn to elective office after being a “grumpy” economic developer who wanted to create economic growth. “This was not part of my life ambition to come here.”

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