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Pelosi defends handling of ‘Squad’ as Democrats fume about Ocasio-Cortez’s top aide

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi refused to respond directly during a news conference Thursday to comments from Representative  Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi refused to respond directly during a news conference Thursday to comments from Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.(Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)

WASHINGTON — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Thursday defended her treatment of four liberal freshman lawmakers, including Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has accused her of singling out ‘‘newly elected women of color’’ through a series of public remarks dismissing their political influence inside the House.

Pelosi refused to respond directly to Ocasio-Cortez’s accusation at a Thursday news conference but said she had to speak out to defend her moderate members after Ocasio-Cortez’s top aide accused them of racist actions.

‘‘Our members took offense at that. I addressed that. How they’re interpreting and carrying it to another place is up to them, but I’m not going to be discussing it any further,’’ Pelosi, a California Democrat, told reporters.

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Saikat Chakrabarti, Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff, referred to moderate Democratic groups in a tweet last month as ‘‘New Southern Democrats’’ who are ‘‘hell bent to do to black and brown people today what the old Southern Democrats did in the ’40s.’’

The aide later deleted the tweet but posted other tweets saying the moderates’ actions — in this case, to pass a compromise border spending bill — ‘‘still enable a racist system.’’

The tweet has emerged as a key flash point in a simmering feud between Pelosi and ‘‘the Squad’’ — freshman Democratic Representatives Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, and Ocasio-Cortez of New York — one that burst into a full boil this week after simmering for months when Pelosi told The New York Times that the four ‘‘didn’t have any following,’’ citing their lonely votes last month against a Democratic-crafted bill to address the southern border crisis.

Ocasio-Cortez responded in an interview with The Washington Post: ‘‘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,’’ she said. ‘‘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.’’

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Ocasio-Cortez is of Puerto Rican descent, Pressley is African-American, Omar is an African immigrant, and Tlaib is Palestinian American.

Said Pelosi Thursday in response, ‘‘We respect the value of every member of our caucus. The diversity of it all is a wonderful thing. Diversity is our strength. Unity is our power. And we have a big fight, and we’re in the arena and that’s all I’m going to say on the subject.’’

Those comments came as other minority members of Pelosi’s caucus spoke up in her defense. Leaving a private member meeting Thursday morning, Representative Gregory Meeks, Democrat of New York, said members were buzzing about both Chakrabarti’s tweet and Ocasio-Cortez’s remark.

‘‘All I can say is, I don’t know what she meant by that,’’ Meeks said of the ‘‘singling out’’ remarks. ‘‘Clearly the speaker has been inclusive of women of color. When you have a caucus like we have that has been as diverse as ours, the speaker has been very inclusive.’’

The tweet was ‘‘insulting’’ and ‘‘a big issue,’’ he added. ‘‘To try to compare this to what African-Americans went through? . . . I think the African-American community deserves an apology for that.’’

Some Democrats are looking for more than an apology from Ocasio-Cortez and Chakrabarti, a former leader of the Justice Democrats, a liberal activist group that has supported primary challenges against several veteran lawmakers.

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‘‘They want him out,’’ said a senior Democratic aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal conversations, noting the Justice Democrats’ continuing advocacy for the ouster of several minority Democrats. Chakrabarti recently tweeted support for Jessica Cisneros, who is challenging Democratic Representative Henry Cuellar of Texas.

Pelosi did not respond to a question about whether Chakrabarti should be sanctioned for his tweet. A spokesman for Ocasio-Cortez did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday on the criticism of Chakrabarti.

Said House majority leader Steny Hoyer, Democrat of Maryland, ‘‘I think all staffers ought to allow their members to speak.’’

At a Wednesday evening meeting in Pelosi’s office, Democratic Representative Derek Kilmer of Washington, chairman of the New Democratic Coalition, told Pelosi in stark terms that moderates were irate about Chakrabarti’s tweet — specifically citing Representative Terri Sewell, Democrat of Alabama, a New Democrats cochair who is one of several moderate African-Americans representing a southern district.

Sewell has tried multiple times to discuss the matter with Ocasio-Cortez, Kilmer said in the meeting, but has not gotten her calls returned. Two people present described the exchange on the condition of anonymity due to the private nature of the meeting.

‘‘As the speaker says, ‘Our diversity is our strength and our unity is our power, and I think that’s true,’ ’’ Kilmer said as he left Pelosi’s office Wednesday, declining further comment.

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Earlier that day, Pelosi told fellow Democrats in a closed-door meeting not to air their grievances with other Democrats. Members or staff who feel inclined to publicly criticize a Democratic colleague should ‘‘think twice,’’ she said, before adding: ‘‘Actually, don’t do that: Think once.’’

‘‘You got a complaint? You come and talk to me about it,’’ she continued, according to two people present for the remarks. ‘‘But do not tweet about our members and expect us to think that that is just OK.’’

Hoyer, who made a similar call for unity in Wednesday’s caucus meeting, declined to respond Thursday to Ocasio-Cortez’s remark.

‘‘I don’t really want to get in this back and forth,’’ he said. ‘‘I would hope it would stop.’’