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House’s most liberal caucus divided over how to use its political clout

U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus speaks to reporters in January 2019. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

The House’s most liberal caucus is poised to expand its numbers in the election and potentially realize a long-sought goal: Democrats controlling all levers of power in Washington and an opportunity to push its agenda of Medicare-for-all and the Green New Deal.

But even before the votes are counted Tuesday, the 100-member Congressional Progressive Caucus is divided over how to use its political clout, with some members advocating an aggressive approach — including voting more often as a bloc to wield power — and others urging a more diplomatic strategy.

The internal dispute is unnerving outside liberal groups — and privately even some inside the caucus — who fear that their shot at revolutionary change with a Democratic White House and Senate could slip away at the moment the party is in charge. In fact, many activists want the group to go even further and create their own version of the House Freedom Caucus, the conservative coalition that regularly undermined GOP leadership, opposed bipartisan bills in a bid to extract concessions and pushed the party to the right.

“The Freedom Caucus was one of the most successful legislative tactics of the past 100 years,” said Max Berger, a former adviser to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and a liberal activist watching the matter closely. “Progressives should ultimately seek to replicate what made them successful.”

He added: “If the CPC can do that, that’s amazing. If they can’t . . . we need additional folks organizing within the CPC or potentially even outside of it to make sure that can happen.”

The unfolding debate is a reminder that although some on the left have boasted about pushing a potential Biden administration left, the reality is that growth of the progressive movement nationwide has yet to be reflected in Congress. The influence of the left has been on the rise in recent years, but liberal organizers privately acknowledge that their allies in Congress have fallen short in asserting power inside the Capitol Building.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — even after the ascension of the “squad” of liberal lawmakers such as Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) — routinely sided with her moderate members on legislative priorities and tamped down rebellions from the left. Now, with more liberal members poised to join those eager liberal newcomers, outside groups are expecting more from a possible Biden administration — and from their own Hill allies.

The caucus’s internal dispute comes as Democrats are heavily favored to expand their House majority and are counting on the energy of the left to propel Joe Biden to the White House and help their party claim the Senate. If President Trump wins a second term, soul-searching within the Democratic Party is certain, with liberals probably faulting the establishment for picking a more centrist candidate rather than one beloved by the left.

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At the moment, however, the caucus is at a crossroads, with members trying to decide how hard they’re willing to flex to get what they want — and whether they’re willing to ruffle the feathers of a speaker known for her iron grip and endure the wrath of colleagues who typically disdain hard-line approaches.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the co-chair of the caucus, has tried to find a middle ground. She has shunned the comparison to the Freedom Caucus and encouraged others to do the same while also seeking to bind her massive group with new rules. Those include requiring CPC members to attend at least 50 percent of meetings; binding them to vote as a cohesive bloc — even against leadership — should the CPC take a position for or against a bill; and requiring members to sponsor certain prized legislative packages.

But even those relatively modest changes have made some uncomfortable. In a CPC call last week, Pelosi ally Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) were among those urging caution and warning liberal members against falling into a Freedom Caucus analogy trap.

“We’re under a different kind of microscope right now,” Huffman said. “And you’ve got, certainly, the Republicans and to some extent a media narrative out there that there’s this radical Democratic Socialist, tea party-of-the-left movement taking over things. And so, I think as we contemplate changes, we’ve got to be careful not to gratuitously fuel that narrative.”

One caucus member familiar with the pushback complained that some of the changes make it look as though the group is trying to downsize and push members out. Another member, who like the first spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk frankly, argued that although liberal wins are great, “we’re part of a larger caucus and also want to be good partners in making sure we stay in the majority.”

That’s the reason Pelosi has eschewed proposals such as Medicare-for-all, free college and the Green New Deal, instead adopting a more centrist Democratic approach that appeals to voters in swing districts — not just places such as San Francisco, as she likes to say. “You can’t be effective and not be working in partnership with your colleagues in a productive way; you just can’t,” the CPC member said.

Those comments highlight a fundamental difference in how Republicans and Democrats operate on the Hill: Conservatives routinely lambasted their leadership and even sank legislation until they got what they wanted. But in the House, Pelosi runs a tight ship. Lawmakers are expected to play nice, with no surprises, and Democratic often think twice about going up against her.

Forming a new group or a bloc willing to say “no” to Biden priorities and Pelosi herself would be a significant tactical change that requires lawmakers to be comfortable bucking leadership — and so far, few, including few liberals, are willing to go there.

That’s not true of everyone. Like the “squad,” a crop of newer and incoming members have signaled a willingness to take harder stances. In an interview, Democratic candidate Jamaal Bowman — who ousted establishment Democrat Eliot L. Engel (N.Y.) last spring and is expected to win on Tuesday — said that “it’s essential for us to organize on the inside, whether it’s the progressive caucus or through a smaller caucus.”

“The more we can work in unison and be coordinated as a caucus and as a voting bloc, that’s how we exercise power, and that’s how we move policy in a more progressive direction,” he said. “If someone, you know, has a problem with that . . . then maybe the Progressive Caucus isn’t for them.”

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Omar, who serves as group vote-counter, agreed, saying that “our ability to lead a caucus that is effective rests in our ability to reform ourselves into a position of power.”

“I can’t understand how people would object to any changes we’re making,” she said. “These new rules make us more effective.”

Privately, some supporters of the changes worry that some House Democrats join the CPC as an “insurance policy” to try to stave off a primary challenge from the left but are progressive in name only.

“It’s pissing off some of the old guard, but a lot of the old guard people are not actually progressive,” said Waleed Shahid, a spokesman for the Justice Democrats, a liberal group that has taken down a handful of more establishment Democrats in recent years. “They just want to be a member of the caucus without doing anything.”

Before forming the Freedom Caucus, conservatives similarly tried to operate inside the confines of a larger conservative group known as the Republican Study Committee, which had more than 100 members. With too many people with close leadership ties, however, they weren’t willing to take hard stances and rarely spoke with one voice to extract wins.

That’s why Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and his like-minded companions ditched the group to form their own smaller, more ideologically pure group of members willing to go to the mat.

Jayapal, who has won concessions from Pelosi in the past, including a series of hearings on Medicare-for-all, says that is not necessary. The changes, she argues, will make the CPC a stronger player. Even if the group refuses to take a stand on a bill, a subsection of the membership can decide to band together to threaten to vote against legislation to elicit wins, she continued, just as they did during a prescription drug fight last year.

“People are like, ‘Form a subcaucus!’ You don’t need to form it — it naturally forms if there’s the votes for it on a case-by-case basis,” she said. “Anytime some reporter describes this as the ‘Freedom Caucus of the left,’ it actually hurts us because everyone like, ‘We build things up, we don’t tear things down.’ Then I have to go back and say we’re not going to be the Freedom Caucus.”

For now, outside groups and even the younger generation of members eager to take an aggressive stance are behind the CPC changes, which they say is at least a move in the right direction. Democratic candidate Cori Bush, the Black Lives Matter activist who ousted Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) in a primary, said the changes should suffice in allowing liberal members to secure votes on Medicare-for-all, a $15 nationwide minimum wage and an overhaul of the criminal and policing systems.

“It’s going to make our group smaller, but I believe in making it smaller, it will make us more powerful,” she said.

But if the CPC changes go down, all bets are off, according to interviews with multiple people in the group or helping them on the outside. And even if they pass, the draw of a Freedom Caucus-type entity may still win out.

“It depends on the willingness of the CPC to play hardball,” said one aide to a liberal member who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly.