WASHINGTON — In January 2019, newly elected progressives stormed into the halls of Congress, demanding that the Democratic Party move to the left on health care, economic and racial justice, and climate issues.
Over the past year, they’ve earned some major victories: In July, nearly every member of the Democratic caucus voted with progressives to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour nationwide. Earlier this month, they successfully pushed party leadership to abandon a plan to reduce drug prices in favor of a more liberal version. And a majority of House Democrats now support Medicare for All, a centerpiece for dozens of winning campaigns across the country in 2018, which Rep. Pramila Jayapal, who cochairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, has declared a “new kind of centrism.”
“[It is] the nature of being a Progressive Caucus member — you're maybe out there on issues first before it's hit the mainstream,” Rep. Mark Pocan, Jayapal’s cochair on the CPC, said in a recent interview with BuzzFeed News.
“Progressives are just the first to the best ideas,” Jayapal added with a smile.
But even with those wins, the caucus finds itself at a tipping point around a central question: Now that they have power, how do they wield it?
It’s a question complicated by the caucus’s membership. At its inception in the early 1990s, the CPC was a “social group for members” with “similar ideological views,” as Pocan recently put it. Because of that, nearly 40% of Democrats in the House are members of the CPC and they run the spectrum from the expected — Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar — to more moderate lawmakers like Rep. Joe Kennedy.
That expansive ideological diversity means that even while progressive leaders have pushed policy to the left, they can’t actually wield their numbers successfully.
In September, the CPC became the first caucus to officially endorse an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, following months of calls from its most left-leaning members like Reps. Al Green and Maxine Waters to oust the president from office.
“We realized that we had so many members who were actually already calling for impeachment that it would be an opportunity for us as an entire caucus to also be able to formally state why this was important,” Jayapal said. “And so it was a combination of having a lot of members that had already taken some sort of a position on it, but also realizing that this was a moment for us as a caucus to weigh in on one of the most critical issues affecting so many of our constituencies across the board.”
Eventually, nearly every House Democrat agreed. But the CPC’s call was undercut by the fact that, on the day it officially endorsed an impeachment inquiry, several of its highest-profile members — including Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, a member of Democratic leadership — weren’t yet on board.
Some of the House’s most left-leaning members have pushed for the CPC to form a smaller caucus, informal or otherwise, that could actually flex real legislative muscle, giving them votes to support — or withhold from supporting — legislation.
“The thing that gives the caucus power is that you can operate as a bloc vote in order to get things done,” Ocasio-Cortez said in an interview on the podcast The Dig not long after she was elected. “Even if you can carve out a sub-portion, a sub-caucus of the progressive caucus, even if you could carve out that, even a smaller bloc, but one that operates as a bloc, then you could generate real power.”
She told HuffPost earlier this month she thinks a there would be real power in a critical mass of 20 to 25 votes that could “throw that weight around and exercise power on behalf of working people.”
Omar, who is a member of CPC leadership and responsible for counting votes among the caucus’s members, also supports the idea. She believes it’s important that members do what she tried to do during her first run for office: define the differences between being a progressive and merely liberal.
“One of the key differences is that being a liberal is just the basic understanding that you are open to new ideas. Being progressive means that you are functioning in the urgency of now and pushing for progress,” she said. “And what has happened in this current Democratic majority house is that the Progressive Caucus has gone through its defining of what it means to be progressive.”
Omar also thinks her Democratic colleagues need to work on consciously shedding what she calls “minority PTSD.”
“The kind of mindset you develop when you are in the minority is one that really is traumatizing,” she said. “Many of our colleagues here have lived in that space off and on for decades, and to now expect that everybody will fully seize this opportunity to lead but not only to lead but to be courageous and bold in the actions you take — as part of your responsibility, as a leader who gets to set the agenda — is one that takes time.”
“The kind of mindset you develop when you are in the minority is one that really is traumatizing."
When asked how she manages the ideological diversity of the caucus, Omar reframes the question. It is not, she argues, that the caucus is ideologically diverse, but rather that its members come from diverse districts.
Many members of the CPC, she said, including herself, have constituents who are on board with big progressive ideas.
“So there isn't a moment where they were going to be conflicted between making a judgment on a policy and whether that is going to be supported by their constituents or not,” she said. “But we in the Progressive Caucus have members who represent districts that are not completely ideologically with them.”
In a recent joint interview with Pocan, asked how they manage the caucus’s diversity, Jayapal was quick to declare, “With great joy!”
Pocan laughed at the response, turned to his cochair and asked, “Are you crossing anything?”
But there is growing evidence that Jayapal and Pocan want to build the caucus into a powerful voting bloc.
They have long rejected comparisons to the Freedom Caucus, a smaller group of the House’s most conservative members who often vote in a bloc and piss off their party’s leadership — their usual line is that the conservatives are the “caucus of no,” while the CPC is the “caucus of yes.” But Jayapal has been consulting with former Freedom Caucus chair Mark Meadows recently and sharing strategy, and she said she hopes that the next election will bring her another crop of bold progressive votes.
“[I] would like to get a bigger core group of people that are, you know, really coming, representing young people, representing folks of color, [and] who are willing to take some riskier and courageous stands to leverage power,” she recently told BuzzFeed News. “And who also understand both the outside and the inside game. Like, you can't do anything just by building a movement on the outside; you do have to have champions on the inside as well, and you certainly can't do anything on the inside without building a movement on the outside.”
But the alliance between the caucus’s more progressive and more centrist members is still strained. Earlier this year, Ocasio-Cortez endorsed against Kennedy, a fellow CPC member who is running a primary challenge against Sen. Ed Markey in Massachusetts in 2020. Meanwhile, Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress — progressive organizations dedicated to challenging incumbent Democrats — have endorsed against Rep. Lacy Clay, another CPC member, and several other members have attracted primary challengers from the left.
The cochairs aren’t blind to this reality.
“I mean, look,” Jayapal said recently. “It’s beautiful to have a big diversity of opinion. It is harder when you want to leverage power, for sure, but, you know, if the Democratic Party is a big tent party, we are a big tent caucus in a different way, with, like, very specific principles obviously that we want people to adhere to.”
Still, Jayapal and Pocan believe they’re making real strides. They waited to endorse House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for the job until she promised powerful committee seats for their members.
“That was like, OK, you've got some real power here that you can wield,” Jayapal said last month.
And since taking back the House, the cochairs said they believe Pelosi is paying more attention to them than ever, citing the drug pricing bill.
But things haven’t always gone their way this year. In an email to BuzzFeed News, Ady Barkan, a prominent progressive activist, pointed to a fight this summer over funding for the US–Mexico border in the midst of the family separation crisis created by Trump and his administration.
“There have been moments when the progressive caucus has chosen to stand down when progressives activists would have preferred for them to stand up,” wrote Barkan, who has become a face of the Medicare for All movement while battling terminal ALS.
In June, moderate Democrats refused to vote for a border funding bill championed by Pelosi, which would have instituted more protections for migrant children held in detention. The Problem Solvers, a more conservative Democratic caucus that also includes Republican members, had a solid voting bloc, and citing concerns with high federal spending, said they would vote against the bill.
Progressives couldn’t save it, and Pelosi allowed the Senate version, championed by Republicans, to come to the floor.
Pocan attacked the moderate Democrats in a now-deleted tweet. “Since when did the Problem Solvers Caucus become the Child Abuse Caucus?” Pocan wrote. “Wouldn't they want to at least fight against contractors who run deplorable facilities? Kids are the only ones who could lose today.”
The tweet prompted two moderates, Reps. Max Rose and Dean Phillips, to confront Pocan on the floor, while other members looked on in awe.
Pocan acknowledged in a recent interview with BuzzFeed News that he wasn’t being as thoughtful as he should’ve been when he wrote the tweet — but he stands by the sentiment.
Asked if he regrets it, he said, “Boy. That's a tough question because I say yes and no. Yes, is the ultimate [answer]. But part of me says no because it needed to be said at that moment… Was that action — to not allow [the more progressive provisions] to come up — could you consider [that] child abuse? Yes. Should I have tweeted that out? Probably not. But I gotta admit, it made me feel good that day.”
In the end, the House voted on the Senate’s version of the bill which gutted humanitarian funding.
The whole ordeal was disappointing to Barkan, who also noted the lack of movement on lowering national defense spending and “expanding Social Security, which has enormous support both in Congress and throughout the country, is also a disappointment.”
“The CPC has the potential to be the congressional counterpart to the most progressive president in history and make these policies a reality.”
Many activists say they’d like to see the caucus take a stricter stance, both with members of their own caucus and members of the party at large.
“[Moderate Democrats] have started to occupy more of a central role in this administration than I feel comfortable with,” Abdullah Younus, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America’s national political committee, said in a recent interview. “It's less so progressives standing up to Democratic leadership and more progressives standing up to their own colleagues. I think I'd like to see more of that and I think we've seen a lot of compromises along the way.”
But progressive activists have been impressed with some moves the CPC has made, particularly on single-payer health care, becoming so popular even the caucus’s most moderate members have gotten wholeheartedly on board.
“For years, Medicare for All had been treated not as concrete policy but instead as an aspirational messaging tool for progressives in Congress. But the CPC turned it into a real policy goal, getting Medicare for All hearings in three committees,” Barkan said. “Today a majority of House Democrats support the Medicare for All Act, making Medicare for All the majority position of Democrats in Congress.”
It’s proof, Barkan wrote, that the CPC can move beyond simply playing the role of negotiating partner in Congress to that of agenda-setter.
“A year from now, the CPC has the potential to be the congressional counterpart to the most progressive president in history and make these policies a reality,” he said.
What progressive members need to do, Omar argued, is continually remind the party that the base is with them.
“The base and the people that we are fundamentally responsible to are not that much different than everyone else's,” she said. “We have to be willing to continue to communicate that and not allow people to define us as people with, like, a narrow base or, you know, with the fringe base. We have the support of the majority of the public for the policies that we advocate for. And so we have to speak from a place of authority and power.”