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Behind recent Congressional Progressive Caucus wins, Rep. Ilhan Omar counts the votes

As whip of the CPC, Omar is responsible for finding out where members stand, and pushing them toward the caucus’ priorities.

Rep. Ilhan Omar
Even for those who follow Rep. Ilhan Omar’s work as a legislator, her role as Congressional Progressive Caucus whip is less well known.
REUTERS/Erin Scott

Nancy Pelosi said no. There would be no changes. No chance, now, to stop the drug pricing bill the speaker of the House was pushing through the end of 2019.

The bill would allow for the federal government to directly negotiate drug prices for Medicare recipients, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars in savings. But members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) thought the bill was too weak. It didn’t go far enough to expand health care protections for those who needed it most.

Pelosi’s language was a stark change from the weeks prior, when it looked as though some CPC priorities would remain in the bill. Changes suggested by Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington, co-chair of the CPC, were slowly stripped from the bill in the days before the bill’s vote. And Democrats in the caucus, like Lloyd Doggett of Texas and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, were incensed.

Privately, caucus leadership said they had the votes to tank the bill, should Pelosi not allow more ambitious provisions. Publicly, Jayapal told reporters during a tense week of negotiations: “We are waiting to see what we’ve got.”

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In the end, the Progressive Caucus did not tank the legislation. Instead, its members were able to solidify a compromise. The caucus did not get everything it wanted, but it did score two key changes: one, mandated price negotiations on at least 25 drugs the first year, then a minimum of 50 after that; and two, stronger penalties for companies that raise the price of prescription drugs at a higher rate than inflation (Jayapal’s initially suggested changes).

Jayapal called the final result of the drug pricing bill “a huge win.”

The bill, The Elijah E. Cummings Lower Drug Costs Now Act, passed 191 to 228 by 18 votes. A majority, but a small margin that included the Progressive Caucus. Unlike years prior, the effort was a show of force for the the CPC: The Caucus successfully came together as a unit in order to ensure progressive priorities actually passed in the House.

While Congressional Progressive Caucus members MinnPost spoke to said it was a team effort, they said there is one person behind the scenes, having conversations, counting the votes, and setting the tone of the legislative agenda: CPC Whip Rep. Ilhan Omar.

Counting the votes

Even for those who follow Omar’s work as a legislator, her role as CPC whip is less well known. For a freshman congresswoman, it is unusual to have so much responsibility so early on. But Omar came to Congress wanting the job and requested it, seeing the CPC as a vehicle for the kind of progressive change she sought to make in Washington.

The job of whip takes a significant amount of skill and relationship building. Omar needs to drum up support for the caucus line. In order to do that, she needs to learn who is going to vote for legislation, who is going to vote against it, and why they’re going to vote that way. And in order to do that, she needs to spend time directly building rapport with representatives around the country, understanding their districts, and understanding where they are in terms of legislative priorities.

Omar said that when she is operating as whip, her priority is making sure that the Progressive Caucus has the votes for whatever piece of legislation it has prioritized: “In a whip operation, we don’t really get to have an opinion on where we’re pushing people.”

Initially, Omar’s office will send an email to the entire caucus to check the temperature: Where are they on a particular piece of legislation? Then they will begin the outreach process, member by member, until it’s clear that they have enough votes for whatever action they’re going to proceed with.

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“My job is to try to give people an understanding of not where we should be, but where we really are,” Omar said, noting what strategies come to mind. “How much leverage we could have with our voice. Times where we should be fully engaging in a conversation. Times where we are much more powerful than we think we are. And times where we don’t really have that much leverage, but we need to be creative.”

Caucus ascendant

The changes on the drug pricing bill exemplify the caucus’ new-found power. Gone is the ragtag Progressive Caucus founded in 1991 by then-Rep. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA). Gone, too, is the fledgling Progressive Caucus that Omar’s predecessor, Rep. Keith Ellison, worked to build as vice chair. In its place, under Jayapal and Co-Chair Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, a continuation, a stronger force, but something closer to what was mostly a vision during Ellison’s tenure: a Progressive Caucus, 98 members strong, that is getting used to holding its own and demanding legislative priorities.

“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 in to this new session,” Omar said in 2018. 

The Progressive Caucus is now the second largest caucus under the Democratic Party, just shy of the 103 members of the moderate New Democrat Coalition. As long as Republicans vote no on Democratic legislation en masse, there is an opening for the CPC to provide an ultimatum: Make changes or the bill will not pass.

Omar said that behind the scenes, winning changes on the drug pricing bill was not as simple as standing as a united caucus from the get-go. She had to shore up the votes and remind caucus members that, even though they were one caucus, not everyone was on board with holding up Pelosi’s bill.

“There was a member of the Progressive Caucus who was like, ‘The majority of the progressive caucus is against this legislation.’ I was like, ‘No, actually, when we whip, this is the number of people. And this is what we can do with the number of votes that we have against the bill and how we can leverage that.’”

Jayapal, who was the first member of Congress to endorse Omar, told MinnPost that Omar does this kind of behind the scenes work consistently.

“I think that people don’t typically pay attention to the work that has to go on, that’s not sexy and loud and publicly facing,” Jayapal said. “But there is a lot that happens behind the scenes. And Ilhan is a worker. She’ll do the work. She’ll put in the time. She comes to the meetings. She is very much a part of the Progressive Caucus and we operate as a team.”

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Operating as a team, Jayapal said, often means working to bring in everyone on strategy and ensure that legislators within the caucus find the approach agreeable. She said the drug pricing bill is a key example of how Omar is effective when it comes to doing that.

“I know Ilhan was important in sort of explaining to Representative Ocasio-Cortez about why we were doing it the way we were. And so those are the kinds of conversations that happen,” Jayapal said.

“All of us have them, but the whip has to manage.”

Leadership potential

Omar, a freshman, has served as whip since the start of her term in 2018. Jayapal said that she took an interest in taking on the job early and swiftly, suggesting key changes to the House Rules package that defines how the House functions on a day to day basis.

“It’s really great to have other movement organizers, folks of color, women of color who bring a really important, diverse perspective to the table and aren’t afraid to exercise power,” Jayapal said.

Others in the caucus, like Rep. Barbara Lee of California, pointed to Omar’s work on Medicare for All, The Raise the Wage Act, and the Yemen War Powers Resolution, as significant examples of Omar’s prowess to lead the caucus forward. The Yemen War Powers Resolution in particular was a case where Rep. Ro Khanna, D-California, a Progressive Caucus vice chair, was able to very visibly rebuke the U.S’s involvement in Yemen. While President Donald Trump eventually vetoed the resolution, there too, members said, Omar played a significant role in whipping the vote.

“She has done an effective job with everything. Every job that she has either volunteered for or voted for or assigned,” said Lee, who previously served as both Progressive Caucus whip and co-chair. “It’s been really wonderful to see another black woman take up this mantle.”

Both Lee and Jayapal expect that, should Omar wanted to, she could move into a higher position of leadership in the near future within the CPC.

“All the big issues that our Democratic Caucus has embraced, that really speak to our work for the people, she’s helped pull together the votes for that,” said Lee. “And you don’t do that just by counting votes, but you do that by relationships and by knowing what people want, what their constituents want.”

While Omar has been involved in a variety of behind the scenes legislative discussions, coverage in cable media typically relies on what Trump has said or tweeted about her that particular day.

But embedded in the idea that her time is being sucked up by the endless vortex of cable news and feuds, the Fifth District congresswoman says there is an opportunity. The lack of coverage afforded to certain elements of Omar’s tenure in office, she says, has given her the space to build relationships, to surprise people, to hunker down and legislate. To count the numbers. To whip votes.

“Where nobody really expects you to do anything, there is actually more opportunity for you to do a lot more,” Omar said.

“And that has been, and will always, I think, be part of my legacy as a freshman here.”