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Will the Congressional Progressive Caucus become the Freedom Caucus of the left?

The group is expected to have more than 95 members in the 116th Congress, which is even more than it had during the first two years of Barack Obama’s presidency.

Rep.-elect Ilhan Omar
Rep.-elect Ilhan Omar posing in the front row with other incoming members of the U.S. House of Representatives on Capitol Hill on November 14.
REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

The new, 235-member strong Democratic majority set to take power in the U.S. House of Representatives in January will be, on average, the most progressive Democratic ruling faction on Capitol Hill in decades — or ever.

The party’s left flank is further to the left than ever: Democrats’ most celebrated freshmen, upstarts like Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, are vowing to push for single-payer health care and other left-wing policies. Meanwhile, the Democrats to their right, like Rep.-elect Dean Phillips, unabashedly defend the Affordable Care Act, gun control, and other liberal priorities. The pro-gun, sometimes pro-life conservative “Blue Dog” Democrats who populated Democrats’ last House majority from 2007 to 2011 are all but extinct.

Progressives finally have a fresh chance to govern in D.C., and the Congressional Progressive Caucus is aiming to make it as successful as possible. The decades-old faction of the most left-leaning Democrats — most recently co-chaired by outgoing Rep. Keith Ellison — was, over the last eight years of Republican control of the House, a group of a few dozen liberals that slowly increased its clout in Congress as Democrats languished in the minority.

The 2018 midterm election not only put Democrats in the majority, but it swelled the CPC’s ranks to historic levels: the group is expected to have more than 95 members in the 116th Congress, which is even more than it had during the first two years of Barack Obama’s presidency. Commanding nearly 40 percent of the Democratic House contingent, the CPC has the votes to play a decisive role in which legislation passes Congress, if they vote as a bloc — like the 40-some members of the right-wing Freedom Caucus did under the GOP majority, a strategy that infuriated party leadership but gave the group outsize sway on the Hill.

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But the CPC is not the Freedom Caucus, lawmakers and Congress experts say, and it’s unclear if progressives could, or would even want to, function as a bloc. What’s clear, though, is that CPC leaders and members want to set the agenda for congressional Democrats over the next two years, and they plan to champion an unapologetically progressive platform that may not produce many sweeping legislative achievements in divided government, but will serve as a statement of Democrats’ values ahead of the 2020 elections.

Showing what progressives can do

Democrats will return to the majority in January facing some significant challenges: they’ll have to find ways to advance their priorities with Republicans in control of the Senate and the White House, figuring out where they can compromise with the GOP and where they can’t.

The House will be at the forefront of Democrats’ efforts to make their case for the 2020 election, and it will play a major role in setting the landscape for that election: buoyed by their midterm romp, House Democrats are also planning to provide rigorous oversight of President Donald Trump and his administration.

The CPC is well-positioned to influence how the broader Democratic majority takes on all of these tasks. It is representative of the Democratic base — Omar told MinnPost the caucus was the “soul and conscience” of the party — and it is at the vanguard of some of the ideas that excite progressives most right now, from Medicare-for-All to abolishing the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency to a more aggressive approach to mitigating climate change.

Omar, who was just elected to CPC leadership as whip, said that the caucus’ priorities in the upcoming Congress will be immigration reform, Medicare-for-All and other measures to make health care reform more affordable and accessible. “I’m quite certain we’re going to be aggressive pushing for a bill to come to the floor,” Omar said of health care issues.

The progressive Medicare-for-All dream is highly unlikely to go anywhere in the U.S. Senate — it’s unclear if it’d even pass the House — but in the eyes of CPC members, moving on bills like it helps to show voters what Democrats would accomplish if they were in control of more than just the House. “Part of what we need to do,” said Wisconsin Rep. Mark Pocan, a CPC co-chair, is to “pass legislation to show people what the alternative is if they were to elect more [legislative] bodies to have Democrats.”

The other point of moving big-picture bills: pushing the Democratic Party to the left. “We know that people agree with progressives on the issues,” Pocan said, citing a Reuters poll that showed 70 percent of Americans in support of Medicare-for-All. “Our job is to convince those who are elected that that’s what their constituents want… We want to make sure Democrats are responsive to taking such a big majority, to show people we heard their message.”

That’s an important project for the CPC, because the Democratic House will also be shaping must-pass legislation, like annual spending bills, which can become vehicles for larger policy fights. Likely Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, and other Democrats, have also talked about compromising with Trump and Republicans on infrastructure legislation and bills to tackle the cost of prescription drugs.

With its numbers — Pocan ventured that the CPC could ultimately have closer to 100 members come January — the group could be in a position to preserve or kill any Democratic deal-making with Republicans when it comes to spending bills and other essential legislation.

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Progressives are well aware of that possibility: over the last eight years, they watched as conservatives in the Freedom Caucus threatened to withhold their votes on government funding bills over all manner of things, from the national debt to immigration.

“We all watched what happened,” Pocan said, citing the current funding standoff over funding for a U.S.-Mexico border wall — conservatives don’t think there’s enough money for it — as the final example of a GOP failure to govern. “None of us want that. As much as I may have differences on issues with some parts of the caucus, I realize how completely disastrous the last eight years have been.”

Taken for granted?

The idea of conflict within the Democratic majority is not just theoretical. While the 2018 election grew the CPC, it also boosted the numbers of two of its rivals to the right: the New Democrat Coalition, a caucus of pro-business, center-left Democrats, and the Blue Dogs, the party’s long-standing conservative wing.

The Blue Dogs, decimated by the 2010 tea party wave that retired many conservative Democrats, will have 24 members next year, up from 18 this year. (Rep. Collin Peterson, of Minnesota’s 7th District, is one of the longest-tenured and most conservative Blue Dogs.) It’s the New Democrats, however, that are poised to match the CPC: the group will have more than 90 members after adding 30 incoming freshman Democrats, including Angie Craig of Minnesota’s 2nd District and Dean Phillips of Minnesota’s 3rd District. (With Ellison and Rep. Rick Nolan leaving Congress, Omar will be the only CPC member from Minnesota.)

The New Democrats’ chair, Rep. Jim Himes of Connecticut, framed the 2018 midterm as a mandate for “thoughtful, service-driven leaders who will work across ideologies to get things done… Together we look forward to advancing key priorities like investing in American infrastructure and reducing the cost of health care.”

Democrats have made a point of showing a unified front since their election win: their first big piece of legislation is a slate of democracy, ethics, and good-government reforms that many candidates ran and won on this year. At a press conference last week, a range of Democrats from Omar to Phillips appeared onstage with Pelosi to voice support for the legislation.

Observers of Congress don’t expect that the 116th Congress will be full of such kumbaya moments for the expanded, more ideologically diverse Democratic majority. The party is expected to have intense debates over single-payer legislation and other controversial items.

According to Matt Glassman, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute, the Democratic majority will be a “lot of different blocs struggling against each other.”

“The Democratic Party is bigger, but the seats they’ve added tend to be people who are going to be more on the conservative end of the party. On the left side of the party, you have a lot more outspoken progressive types coming into office who were in safe seats.”

Despite that, Glassman is not anticipating the Democratic majority will have similar problems as the recent GOP majority did, because the two parties are oriented differently in Congress. “Democrats are a collection of interests, representing African-Americans, labor unions, and progressive coalitions. The Republicans are more representing a general ideology of conservatism,” he said.

That difference, Glassman says, is a big reason why the CPC is unlikely to turn to the scorched-earth brinksmanship of the Freedom Caucus. Another distinction is that the CPC is increasingly a part of the top echelon of the party: after being shut out for some time, CPC members saw their representation in House leadership increase by five positions in last week’s internal elections. A CPC member, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, was elected to the important post of Democratic Caucus chair and is seen as a possible successor to Pelosi. (In that race, Jeffries defeated California Rep. Barbara Lee, an early CPC chair and a darling of the left.)

Beyond that, the CPC is poised to have greater influence on key committees like the tax-writing Ways and Means panel, the Financial Services panel, and the crucial Appropriations Committee. Pocan said that CPC leaders secured commitments from Pelosi to shuffle veteran progressives into leadership positions on those panels.

Glassman says that the CPC “is much better integrated into the Democratic structure, it’s much larger, it seemingly works to exert its influence by pushing its agenda within the party.”

Ultimately, it could be the case that one of the CPC’s strengths — its numbers — make it too big to have the type of influence that blocs like the Freedom Caucus and the Blue Dogs had in the past.

At a certain point, Glassman says, “you are the party in some ways… It’s not like they’re bargaining with leadership to get things, they’re front and center in the dealmaking.”

The last time Democrats were in the majority, members of the smaller Blue Dog caucus were more sought-after than CPC members were with sales pitches and deals to get them to support the Affordable Care Act. It could happen again: Ruth Bloch Rubin, a congressional scholar, told the website FiveThirtyEight that the Blue Dogs historically “have been much better organized, and thus in a better position to credibly bargain with party leaders and threaten to defect from the party line as a bloc.”

Glassman argues the CPC has historically been taken for granted. “I think Democrats have cared more about having centrists, sewing up the Blue Dogs during the ACA fight or, under Obama, shifting toward the center on fiscal issues,” he said.

The caucus is aware of this history — and they’re hoping to change things, starting in January. “We have to govern from a place of knowing we have a mandate from the American people to get our agenda accomplished,” Omar said.

“I think of us as the soul and conscience of the Democratic Party… We have made that clear, and I’m pretty certain and confident that the Democratic caucus has a full grasp of what that is going to mean going into this new session.”