WASHINGTON - House Speaker Nancy Pelosi admonished Democrats for personally attacking one another, warning in a closed-door meeting Wednesday that the party's fracturing was jeopardizing its majority.
Without naming names, her target was clear: the four liberal freshmen known as "the Squad."
"You got a complaint? You come and talk to me about it. But do not tweet about our members and expect us to think that that is just OK," Pelosi, D-Calif., told Democrats.
But "the Squad" - Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts - is convinced it is Pelosi who is being the bully.
The four are struggling with the speaker's moves to isolate them in recent weeks, according to interviews with the lawmakers, congressional aides and allies. Pelosi has made at least half-dozen remarks dismissing the group or their far-left proposals on the environment and health care. More recently she scorned their lonely opposition to the party's emergency border bill last month.
And she defended those comments Wednesday, saying, "I have no regrets about anything. Regrets is not what I do," doubling down on her claim that the group has little power in the House.
"When these comments first started, I kind of thought that she was keeping the progressive flank at more of an arm's distance in order to protect more moderate members, which I understood," Ocasio-Cortez told The Washington Post. "But the persistent singling out . . . it got to a point where it was just outright disrespectful . . . the explicit singling out of newly elected women of color."
The four women are trying to figure out how to respond, texting one another and weighing whether to confront Pelosi to ask her to stop. But for now, they are focused on their congressional duties, even as they defend their votes in the House that have drawn Pelosi's ire.
"Thank God my mother gave me broad shoulders and a strong back. I can handle it. I'm not worried about me," said Pressley, who called Pelosi's comments "demoralizing." "I am worried about the signal that it sends to people I speak to and for, who sent me here with a mandate, and how it affect them."
The tensions underscore the political and generational divide between the most powerful woman in American politics, who has led House Democrats for more than 16 years, and the new band of liberals clamoring for change and trying to push the party left. Pelosi has spent more than 30 years perfecting an inside game to secure wins for her party, most notably the Affordable Care Act in 2010. The four freshman lawmakers, by contrast, have built a massive online following and leveraged their power on the outside, including in the 2020 presidential race.
Their ability to work together - or refusal to - will have major implications for Democrats as they seek to oust President Donald Trump and retain their majority in next year's election. Pelosi knows that fate of her majority rests with the moderate Democrats who captured Republican-held seats in last year's midterm elections.
"A majority is a fragile thing," she said, according to two people present for the remarks, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private meeting, adding that members should show "some level of respect and sensitivity" to more moderate colleagues: "You make me the target, but don't make our [moderates] the target in all of this, because we have important fish to fry."
The speaker's allies say concerns about the next election is driving her moves to isolate these four women.
"Sometimes a leader's got to take positions to keep the team [united]," said Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y. "She knows what got us here and what's going to keep us here."
Pelosi suggested to New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd in an opinion piece published Saturday that the so-called "Squad" had a limited following inside the House. She specifically pointed to the example of the House-passed Democratic border bill in late June, which the group opposed.
"All these people have their public whatever and their Twitter world," Pelosi said in the New York Times interview. "But they didn't have any following. They're four people and that's how many votes they got."
Several in the caucus were uncomfortable with Pelosi's comments. Congressional Progressive Caucus leaders are expected to talk to Pelosi about her comments, according to two officials familiar with the plan. Other women of color in the House have similarly expressed concerns.
"I can't tell the speaker to apologize, but I was taken aback by it. Because we're all here to work together," said Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-Conn., the first black woman to represent her state in Congress.
Notably, Hayes, Ocasio-Cortez and Omar appeared together with Pelosi smiling on the cover of Rolling Stone in a photo taken in January.
While some of the four enjoy more diplomatic relationships with Pelosi, Ocasio-Cortez's relationship with the speaker has been chilly from the start. After she upset Rep. Joseph Crowley of New York in the Democratic primary, Pelosi moved to immediately downplay her victory, saying it was a one-off event.
Still, Pelosi tried to create a bridge with the New Yorker: During their first face-to-face meeting just before the midterm elections, Pelosi spent nearly two hours trying to convince the liberal that she was just like her, touting her background. It was around that time that Ocasio-Cortez agreed to not only back Pelosi as speaker but also vocally defend her against rebels trying to keep her from the gavel.
Now, half a year later, virtually all communication between the two women has ceased. The two have not spoken one-on-one since February when Ocasio-Cortez declined Pelosi's personal request that she join her select committee on climate change, according to individuals who know both lawmakers.
Just days after, during a private Progressive Caucus meeting, Pelosi singled out Ocasio-Cortez in front of her colleagues, calling her out for rejecting the select committee offer. Ocasio-Cortez had publicly criticized leadership for refusing the give the committee any clout.
Since then, Pelosi has made several dismissive remarks about Ocasio-Cortez, calling her Green New Deal "the Green Dream or whatever," and suggesting that a "glass of water" could have beaten Crowley."
"The third and fourth time [she insulted me], it was like, 'This is unnecessary, but I'm not going to pick a fight over it. Whatever, I'll be the punching bag if that's what they want me to be,' " Ocasio-Cortez said. But now people are telling the freshman to talk to Pelosi. She doesn't want to, however.
"There hasn't really been a relationship, to be frank," she said. "It's difficult."
Omar, according to people close to her, has been similarly disappointed. The Minnesota lawmaker looks up to Pelosi and has enjoyed a positive relationship with the speaker, despite her criticisms of Israel that caused a major stir in the party. Even then, however, Pelosi gave Omar a heads-up before chiding her publicly.
In one of her first conversations with Pelosi after she won her primary, Omar told Pelosi that she couldn't vote on the floor because of a headwear ban in the House. Pelosi promised to change the rules so she could wear her hijab in the Capitol.
For Tlaib, Pelosi's latest comment amounted to a mixed message - one that seemed to contradict the advice Pelosi gave in a meeting early in her tenure. "Represent your district," Tlaib recalled Pelosi telling her. "And that's exactly what I'm doing."
Hours after her primary win in August, Tlaib ruffled feathers by saying in a CNN interview that she would "probably not" support Pelosi for speaker. But Pelosi, directly and through intermediaries, worked through the ensuing months to keep her mind open, and Tlaib ultimately voted for her.
Tlaib then won a seat on the Financial Services Committee, a plum assignment for a freshman in a safely Democratic district. And even as she garnered outsize media attention, Pelosi appeared to have her back: When Tlaib was filmed telling a crowd of supporters in vulgar terms that lawmakers would impeach President Trump, Pelosi delivered only faint public criticism.
"Whatever is she saying is not going to impact my work," Tlaib said of Pelosi's comments over the weekend. "I'm going to continue to introduce legislation and policy."
Yet some lawmakers and aides believe Pelosi's treatment of the group is having a quiet effect on them. Many activists thought the group would band together to form a type of Freedom Caucus to deliver wins for the left, but they haven't done so and appear almost on the defensive when Pelosi criticizes them.
They also have not tried to whip votes against a major leadership priority such as the border bill, nor muscled House support for impeachment, an idea Pelosi rejects. And they have declined to call Pelosi out by name as she sidelines liberal policy priorities such as Medicare-for-all and the Green New Deal, dismissing them publicly as "enthusiasms" and "exuberances" rather than viable policy prescriptions.
"She chooses her words carefully. She does not misspeak," said Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., a close friend of Pelosi. "There's a big difference between being an advocate and being a legislator."
Asked about why she hasn't confronted Pelosi, Ocasio-Cortez said she wasn't sure what to do.
"I do find it a little curious that leadership doesn't want us to try to have any sort of conversation about even messaging - but we're just freshmen, right?" she said.