BRYAN BENDER & CONNOR O’BRIEN, POLITICO
The Squad isn’t the only tight-knit group of freshman House Democrats who aren’t waiting their turn to seize the debate on Capitol Hill.
A self-described moderate “gang of nine” is wielding its own “healthy impatience” to counter President Donald Trump’s war-making power and treatment of migrants on the border, while working with little fanfare to close gaps in services for veterans.
The gang, all former military or intelligence officers who flipped red districts blue in November, has had its own clashes with party leaders. Six of the nine did not vote for Speaker Nancy Pelosi earlier this year, and several have angered Democratic leaders by voting to support Republican procedural maneuvers to amend major legislation on the floor.
But the group has received far less partisan fire and fury than the far more famous Squad, the liberal cohort of four Democrats who have jousted with Trump and Pelosi. It’s even received accolades from some key Republican allies.
The gang includes a nucleus of five female lawmakers who refer to themselves as “the badass women” — and privately grouse that all the attention paid to the Squad is hampering their efforts to seek bipartisan remedies. They are also pooling their fundraising efforts to strengthen their reelection prospects in their swing districts.
One of the group’s ultimate ambitions, several told POLITICO, is reclaiming the Democratic Party’s old mantle of national security and foreign policy leadership from a GOP that’s bending to Trump’s “America First” agenda.
“Everyone’s focusing on other freshmen,” said Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a Michigan Democrat who used to be a CIA analyst and a senior Pentagon official. “I think we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to retake the flag for the Democratic Party. I think since Reagan, the flag, patriotism, support for the military has been associated with the Republican Party.”
She added, “It helps the Democrats have real deep expertise on national security.”
“I hope that we can be a part of the story to end America’s forever wars [and] figure out how we’re going to prepare to lead in the 21st century,” added Max Rose, a New York Democrat and decorated Army veteran of the war in Afghanistan. “And that’s going to require … a new strategy and a new theory of global engagement and the use of force and what is the role of diplomacy.”
Another member of the gang, Rep. Gil Cisneros, a California Democrat and former Navy officer, said that “for too long, I think we’ve let the Republicans kind of dictate that … they’re the party of a strong defense, they’re the party of national security. And that’s not true.”
They are joined in the quest by six other freshmen with seats on the Armed Services, Homeland Security or Foreign Affairs committees: Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey, a former Navy helicopter pilot; Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, a former CIA operations officer; Elaine Luria of Virginia, a career Navy veteran; Chrissy Houlahan of Pennsylvania, a former Air Force officer; Jared Golden of Maine, who served in the Marine Corps in Iraq and Afghanistan; and Jason Crow of Colorado, a former Army Ranger.
The group has its origins in the 2018 campaign, when they were endorsed by Serve America, a political action committee spearhead by Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), a Marine veteran of the Iraq War and now a presidential candidate. All but Golden were first-time candidates.
Many of their offices are located near each other, and they communicate almost continuously on an open-ended Signal chat, using the encrypted messaging app to discuss legislative strategy, plan drinks after votes, share child care and other family challenges, and leaven the often-breakneck pace of Congress.
“It’s both a way to exchange ideas related to the job, but also a personal-type thing where we just chitchat about things,” as Luria describes it, adding that the subject matter is also often “pretty comical.”
Crow, the former Army Ranger, is known as “the master of the gif and bitmoji.”
“Sometimes it’s as trivial as who’s going to caucus meeting, to serious ‘Can you co-sponsor my legislation?’ to funny emojis and the like,” said Spanberger, who also leads a task force of gang members and other freshmen aimed at combating foreign influence in U.S. elections.
“I don’t have bitmoji so I feel way less cool,” she adds. “And then of course … whenever Max Rose does something ridiculous we love to share those.”
They attribute their camaraderie to a common sense of mission, drawn from their similar backgrounds but also their political neophyte status.
“We were not in the political world before running our own races in our own corners of the country for similar reasons, which is a call to serve,” Houlahan said in an interview. “We found each other and discovered we had a lot in common. … Because we’d never been candidates or congresspeople before, we’ve found a lot of strength and sense of trust finding other people doing what we’re doing for very similar reasons.”
“They’re the only people I really trust in this place,” Golden told POLITICO in an email.
The gang believes it is already having a significant influence.
Some of them teamed up on a bipartisan bill that passed the House last week that would require new medical screening procedures to ensure more humane treatment of immigrant detainees arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border.
The legislation, Slotkin said, was modeled on the Geneva Convention and longtime rules in U.S. prisons. “We know from what’s going on that they need to provide for basic humanitarian standards — and that includes more things than just food and water,” she said.
The trio said their resumes helped enlist at least three Republican members to co-sponsor the bill.
“I really wanted Republicans on board,” Slotkin said. “I don’t think this is a partisan issue. We should all want basic humanitarian standards at our border. I went to the Geneva Convention for the humanitarian standards we are required to provide our POWs.”
The group also played a prominent role in adding a provision to the House version of the annual defense bill that would prohibit the Trump administration from using the congressional force authorization passed after the Sept. 11 attacks to justify a new war with Iran. The White House has threatened to veto the House-passed defense bill, in part due to the Iran provision.
Sherrill and the other four female members have also played a leading role in coordinating efforts with dozens of other House lawmakers who have served in uniform to bring more attention to female veterans, whom they say the Department of Veterans Affairs too commonly overlooks.
The Servicewomen and Women Veterans Congressional Caucus, headed by Houlahan, has pushed legislation to provide more child care services so female veterans can make their medical appointments. The caucus also sent a letter asking Tricare, the military and veterans’ health care network, to look into covering 3-D technology to help detect breast cancer in patients with dense tissue.
They have also taken on the issue of so-called burn pits, in which troops who were responsible for burning trash in war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan have exhibited health problems not unlike those of 9/11 first responders. In a recent meeting with activist groups, they discussed establishing a burn pit caucus to develop legislation to address troops’ health problems.
The group’s work extends to domestic issues as well, a number of the lawmakers pointed out, including infrastructure and prescription drug pricing.
“We represent red-to-blue districts, so we represent people who are pragmatic and purple in a way, like a large part of our country, ” Houlahan said. “So we try to be pragmatic in the way we approach issues and focus on the issues we were elected on — healthcare, jobs, education, the health of the planet, issues that are central to everybody.”
Some of their Republican colleagues are noticing. “I’ve been bragging on ’em — not only on their background but the thoughtful way they ask questions at hearings and push witnesses,” Texas Rep. Mac Thornberry, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, said in an interview.
But he also expressed skepticism that they can make real inroads in a Democratic caucus focused on other priorities.
“I worry that all of this potential — all of this talent — will be harmed by the partisanship,” Thornberry said. “Can it come fruition in solving problems in a bipartisan way? Is this an aberration or is this the new normal?”
The gang has not always pleased their party leaders. Just three of the nine — Cisneros, Houlahan and Luria — supported Pelosi’s bid for speaker in January. And several have angered party leaders by voting for Republican motions to recommit — a procedural tactic that gives the minority party one last chance to amend major legislation and is typically rejected along party lines.
But despite their common purpose, don’t expect them to always vote together, Spanberger cautioned.
“Sometimes people lump us together and think we vote as a bloc, which is actually really just not true,” she said. “We don’t always vote the same way.”