House progressives are poised to wield their growing influence in the new Congress as the Democratic Party settles in to unified control of Washington for the first time in a decade.
“The squad” has returned to Capitol Hill after Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib beat back primary challenges, and their ranks have been bolstered by newly-elected progressive Democrats who quickly established national profiles, like Missouri Rep. Cori Bush and New York Rep. Jamaal Bowman.
Democrats now control the White House and hold majorities — though narrow — in the Senate and the House, where close partisan splits mean the votes of even a relatively small bloc of members will carry significant weight.
That new dynamic has emboldened progressives and could increase tensions in a caucus that, over the past two years, has seen a spate of internal clashes, ideological differences and tactical disagreements. During the Trump administration, though, the debates were largely symbolic. But with President Joe Biden in office, the squabbles of the past few years are no longer academic — Democrats in the House now possess a powerful hand in shaping the agenda in Washington. And progressives could, if they remain unified, match the influence of the powerful moderate bloc as big ticket legislation winds its way through Congress.
The dynamic has shifted further over the past couple weeks, as the Democratic sweep in Georgia’s Senate runoffs flipped the upper chamber and created a new sense of opportunity in the House. Bills that would have been dead on arrival in the Senate, squashed by Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell, the former majority leader, will now be delivered to the more welcoming hands of his successor, Chuck Schumer, the New York Democrat. And with Biden promising to come out of the gate with a broad and ambitious Covid relief package, which includes longtime progressive priorities like raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, many on the left believe the hour for bold action has arrived.
“I’m optimistic that we have the makings of an FDR moment with a Democratic president, a Democratic Senate and a Democratic House,” Rep. Ritchie Torres, a progressive freshman from New York, said in an interview. “We have a once in a century opportunity to govern as boldly in the 21st century as FDR did in the 20th century.”
But the razor-thin Senate majority and House Democratic losses in 2020 mean that party leaders will also need to cater to moderate and conservative members. In the Senate, most legislation will require Republican support to clear a 60-vote threshold. Some fiscal items can pass with a simple majority, but even then the margin for error will be narrow since every member of the Democratic caucus will effectively hold a veto on any party-line vote (There will be a 50-50 partisan split in the chamber with Vice President Kamala Harris able to cast the tie-breaking vote).
Biden, Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will have to carefully balance competing interests within the party to successfully pass legislation. Newly empowered progressives will have to decide what fights they are willing to pick and, when the time comes, whether they can forge a unity that has often eluded them in the past.
The Progressive Caucus clamps down
In an early effort to more effectively apply the power in their increasing numbers, the Congressional Progressive Caucus recently adopted new rules aimed at getting members to vote as a bloc more frequently.
The CPC will now take an official position when two-thirds of its membership favor it. Each member of the caucus will then be asked to vote in support of those positions at least two-thirds of the time.
That change, among others, was made with the aim of drawing a harder line on key issues, which would strengthen CPC leadership’s position in contentious legislative negotiations.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington, the chairwoman of the caucus, said in an interview that the reforms are “designed to help us be more effective” and “make sure that people are participating and ideologically in line.”
“We have to be able to say this is what the progressive caucus stands for, this is what we’re fighting for,” Jayapal said. “We’re not expecting 100%,” she added, “This is not a litmus test, this is not a purity test, but we do want people to generally be in line with the caucus on votes.”
Progressive members have expressed confidence in the CPC’s new plan of action. But it remains to be seen whether the caucus can hold together under pressure, both from leadership and its own members, a diverse collection of lawmakers with different priorities and degrees of willingness to defy Pelosi — and potentially run up against the White House.
“We need to use the strength in numbers that we have wisely and strategically,” Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez, a progressive freshman Democrat from New Mexico, said in an interview. “We have to make sure we cultivate unity and stay unified as a caucus as well. That is part of the internal strategic tactical negotiations that you will see progressives engaged in.”
The CPC has a membership of close to 100 lawmakers. But if even just a handful of progressive members decided to coordinate strategy and vote in lock step, they could — either formally or in practice — breakaway from the larger caucus and exert meaningful leverage.
Asked if he is prepared to stand in the way of legislation that falls short of his ambitions, Rep. Bowman of New York said, “The short answer to that is yes.”
“The slightly longer answer,” Bowman said, “is I’m organizing with ‘the squad’ and having those exact conversations right now.”
Bowman rose to national prominence last summer after he unseated former Rep. Eliot Engel, then chairman of the influential House Foreign Relations Committee, in a hotly contested primary.
Grassroots activists have long floated the possibility that at least some progressives should form an ideologically rigid voting bloc that might be described as a liberal version of the Freedom Caucus, a group of unbending conservatives that pushed the GOP further right by repeatedly defying party leaders.
Bowman said that he supports the new rules changes for the progressive caucus, believes in Jayapal’s leadership, and believes the caucus will be stronger “as long as we continue to communicate, collaborate and trust each other in that work.”
But he did not rule out the possibility of seeking other means to advance progressive priorities — such as joining a smaller, more closely aligned bloc.
“If things aren’t moving the way that myself and others believe it’s moving,” Bowman said, “the possibility of a separate caucus … we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”
Others are quick to point out the risks that could follow a progressive splintering at a time when consensus will be crucial to the passage of legislative priorities.
Torres, who is also a member of the CPC, warned of the possibility of “political paralysis and gridlock,” when asked about the idea of a Freedom Caucus of the left.
“We cannot afford to have a Democratic Party that devours itself and any attempt at ideological cleansing is going to end in political paralysis and gridlock. We have to proceed with a unified front and with a sense of urgency,” he said, referring to progressives as well as the Democratic Party as a whole.
A senior aide to a CPC member acknowledged that the caucus, in the past, functioned more like “an informal social group” that rarely discussed “wielding power as a bloc.” That, the aide said, was in part a function of the balance of government — being in the minority foreclosed the opportunity to push and prod for more liberal legislation.
The aide also urged caution on the question of breakaway factions, warning that a crack-up of the caucus could deliver political capital to Republicans. That dynamic occasionally played out when GOP leadership, faced with an intransigent Freedom Caucus, was forced to turn to Democrats for votes on major bills.
“(Former Republican Speakers John) Boehner and Paul Ryan would cross over and say, ‘I need your votes, Pelosi, on these year-end spending deals and I’ll give you policy concessions for them,” the aide recalled. “So you ended up having bills move through a conservative House that were much more liberal than what should have been allowed.”
Democrats’ Senate sweep raises the stakes
“There is a greater expectation on the Democratic Party to now deliver the results,” California Rep. Ro Khanna said, describing the push for a $15 minimum wage, student debt relief and the expansion of free, government-administered health care as “non-negotiable” priorities.
Democratic control of the Senate, he added, will make “the progressive caucus (in the House) a lot stronger because you can’t say, well, McConnell’s in charge.”
That job now belongs to Schumer, who is up for reelection in 2022 and has taken strides to shore up his left flank. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who will chair the Budget Committee, will also see his influence grow, giving House progressives their most powerful Senate partner in decades.
But it is Schumer, navigating a slim majority, who will be most responsible for balancing Biden’s agenda with the new dynamic in the House. The surprising Democratic takeover of the Senate has opened up new possibilities for what he can achieve, but also constrained his room to maneuver.
West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, the most conservative Senate Democrat, is poised to be one of the most influential Democrats in the chamber. Unlike Sanders or Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Manchin and other moderate and centrist senators, like Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema, will more often be in a position to seek out votes from the GOP side of the aisle — giving them outsized power in the closely divided body.
Schumer has built a reputation for keeping his caucus onside. But he has never been faced with such massive stakes. There is no guarantee that Senate Democrats will hold together in support of the Covid relief bill outlined by Biden last week. And even then, its scope — which includes both spending and changes to federal law — means at least ten Republicans will have to back it in order to overcome a GOP filibuster.
The Biden team has signaled that they are ready to shift their strategy, if the push for bipartisanship is slapped down by the GOP, and seek to pass a bill through a process called budget reconciliation, which would require only Democratic votes and a simple majority to pass. At that point, Schumer would be called on to deliver.
“I don’t envy the guy. He has a really tough job for the next two years,” said McKenzie Wilson, communications director for Data for Progress, a left-wing think tank.
Wilson, a veteran of Warren’s presidential campaign and Washington Democratic Sen. Patty Murray’s office, pointed to Schumer’s support for executive action on student loan debt forgiveness as one sign that he could be a more reliable ally to House progressives than some might expect.
“Schumer is, frankly, probably more aligned with progressives than a lot of progressives give him credit for,” Wilson said. “But (the question) is going to be, is that just because he’s afraid of getting primaried or is that because he’s genuinely committed to it?”
An early test of progressive organization
Pandemic aid is at the top of the agenda for the Democrat-led Congress and White House and Biden has already unveiled a proposal for a $1.9 trillion economic rescue package.
Democrats across the political spectrum have praised the package and will face pressure to deliver on the President’s first major policy agenda item in office. But some House progressives are already signaling they hope to push the proposal further to the left and others have expressed concern over Biden’s initial play for Republican votes in the Senate
Jayapal in a statement called Biden’s proposal “a promising start.” But she did not offer an immediate, full endorsement.
“The Progressive Caucus has long cautioned against going too small in a moment of crisis that demands urgent and sweeping action,” Jayapal said, adding that the CPC anticipates “working with the Biden Administration to strengthen this proposal and deliver comprehensive and swift relief to families suffering across the nation.”
One policy that progressives have advocated that did not make it into the proposal is recurring direct payments. Instead, the Biden plan provides for a new one-time payment of $1,400.
“We’re not going to give up on that push,” Leger Fernandez of New Mexico said of recurring direct payments, adding, “That’s the purpose of having proposals come to Congress. We can then push for what we’d like to see and see what we can get.”
Rep. Marie Newman, a progressive freshman from Illinois who ousted a conservative House Democrat in a primary challenge, believes the Biden proposal is a good start, but still she wants to see recurring $2,000 direct payments signed into law as soon as possible.
“At least three months of recurring checks is critical and it may need more than that,” Newman said in an interview.
Other progressives, including Bush, Bowman and Ocasio-Cortez initially demanded the $1,400 checks — which would top up the most recent round of $600 direct payments — be boosted to a clean $2,000. The narrow focus of that first round of criticism, typically delivered on Twitter, frustrated some on the left, who saw deeper flaws in the potential bill — specifically on the question of process.
Within 24 hours of Biden’s speech, lawmakers began to tweak their messaging.
Rather than zeroing in on the one-off checks, calls for recurring payments grew louder. Ocasio-Cortez, taking questions from reporters after a virtual town hall on Friday night, praised the contents of the bill but expressed skepticism that Biden could win over enough Republicans to reach a 60-vote, filibuster-proof majority.
“My concern is that if we slow down relief or if we water down relief in a potentially futile attempt to appease Republicans, when we have a Democratic majority, that could result in us helping people less than we possibly could,” she said. “And I don’t think that we can, in good conscience, help people less than we possibly could.”
By Monday morning, a little more than 48 hours before Biden took his oath and moved into the White House, outside progressive groups had sharpened their demands. Justice Democrats and the Sunrise Movement issued a memo that set out progressive demands for “when” — not if — Republicans refuse to sign on to the bill.
It cited former President Barack Obama’s protracted and ultimately fruitless efforts — which he detailed in his recently released memoir — to get GOP support for the Affordable Care Act, and warned Biden not to make the same mistake.
“Biden and Democratic Party leadership have essentially nine months to act before the 2022 election cycle kicks into gear,” the memo read. “There’s nothing that would please Mitch McConnell more than to allow Republicans to run out the legislative clock on key Democratic priorities.”
The memo also pushed Biden to consider “reform(ing) Senate rules to get rid of the supermajority threshold, and pass the package through regular order.” Or, in other words, to push Senate Democrats to do away with the filibuster.
For now, though, any effort to enact that sort of root-and-branch restructuring of the legislative process — which the Democrats could do with a simple majority vote — appears to be desperately unlikely. Even progressive leaders like Sanders have balked at it.
Reconciliation appears to be Biden’s preferred route in the face of GOP opposition, which means changes to the minimum wage would almost surely be stripped from the bill under Senate rules. Other progressive priorities, like statehood for Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico, and major voting rights legislation, would also languish barring changes to the Senate rules.
“It would be far healthier, cleaner, and easier to explain politically to simply reform or get rid of the filibuster immediately,” the groups argued, “and proceed to pass Biden’s agenda through regular order — including must-pass civil rights bills, climate solutions and statehood.”
Still, even the most progressive House members say they are committed to searching out any common ground with Republican colleagues. Sanders and Khanna passed the War Powers Resolution, aimed at blocking further US aid to the Saudi-led war in Yemen, with GOP support during the last Congress in alliance with anti-interventionist Republicans.
Bowman, who spoke to CNN just hours before the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6, said the Democratic victories the night before in Georgia and the refusal of some of his GOP colleagues to object to Biden’s election, gave him some hope.
“Now we can fight amongst ourselves within the Democratic Party and push for the policies that we know the majority of the American people want and need and demand,” Bowman said.
Then he cast his eyes across the aisle.
“And quite frankly, I’m going to be looking very closely at the Republicans who are not supporting the circus that Trump and some Republicans are trying to create,” Bowman said, “because that may present opportunities for collaboration and true bipartisan leadership going forward.”