House Liberals Seek Role in Forming Message

Posted January 16, 2004 at 5:49pm

After a year of avoiding public criticism of Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s (Calif.) leadership, the progressive wing of the House Democratic Caucus is calling on the Minority Leader to push for a more liberal party agenda.

Reps. Barbara Lee (Calif.) and Dennis Kucinich (Ohio), leaders of the Progressive Caucus, voiced their group’s desire to have more of a voice in the 2004 Democratic agenda in a letter last week to Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (S.D.). In it, the Members laid down the gauntlet for what they believe must be addressed in the leaders’ responses to the State of the Union address and included in the larger party agenda heading into the second session of the 108th Congress.

Aides to Progressive Caucus members insist the letter — calling for strong positions on unemployment, Social Security and national defense — was not an assault on Pelosi’s leadership.

“We are concentrating on the issues,” said Doug Gordon, spokesman for Kucinich. “We aren’t looking to have an ideological fight with the leader. She is doing her best and doing a good job to balance the different parts of the Caucus.”

Gordon said the issues outlined in the letter are ones for which the progressives have long fought. Calling on Pelosi to include them, he added, made sense given it is the “beginning of the year, and we wanted the leader to know where a large chunk of Democrats stand.”

“Leader Pelosi has been very effective in advancing the three initiatives that the Progressive Caucus is calling for,” said Lee. “She has taken on the Republicans for their failure to extend unemployment benefits, she has led the fight against the privatization of Social Security, and she has been a strong opponent of Bush’s dangerous foreign policy. We believe that these three issues should be and remain front and center this year.”

Pelosi has long been a member of the Progressive Caucus and continues to enjoy strong support from its members. The new leader, however, has also spent the first year of her leadership tenure reaching out to other more moderate groups within the Caucus and has sought to strike a more centrist leadership approach.

Brendan Daly, spokesman for Pelosi, said the Minority Leader continues to pay attention to the Progressive Caucus and encourages its input when setting the party agenda. He added that the issues Lee and Kucinich outlined will be included in the broader agenda, and some aspects will be incorporated in the official response to President Bush’s address.

“She listens to them,” Daly said. “They are an important part of the party and obviously it’s where her own ideological background lays.”

Daly said regardless of the letter, Pelosi would have put those issues atop the Democratic agenda this year, saying: “These are very important issues that Democrats will continue to be outspoken on.”

Aides throughout the Progressive Caucus said while they don’t feel Pelosi has ignored the group, they want to ensure they have a loud voice as the party moves forward.

Lee and Kucinich, two of the more liberal members of the Democratic Caucus, called for Pelosi and Daschle to incorporate three issues into today’s Democratic response: an extension of unemployment benefits, a federal guarantee of Social Security and a condemnation of the Bush administration’s foreign policy of pre-emption. Both Lee and Kucinich, who is running for president, opposed the recent war in Iraq.

“The American people are intelligent, trusting and generous,” Lee and Kucinich wrote. “They need to hear from you a progressive alternative to the President’s agenda and record. As officers of the Progressive Caucus, we ask that you incorporate our recommendations for your important task.”

House Democrats under Pelosi have continued to push for an extension of unemployment benefits and long held a position against the privatization of Social Security. On the issue of pre-emption, Pelosi said in a separate Democratic “pre-buttal” address Friday that the Bush administration embraced a “radical doctrine of pre-emptive war” that hurt U.S. credibility abroad.

In previous years, the Progressive Caucus has put together an alternative response to the State of the Union address. This year, however, the Caucus opted against doing a separate speech.

One Democratic leadership aide said the Progressive Caucus should have no worries about Pelosi’s allegiance.

“While the Progressive Caucus seems to be fearful that its agenda is being undermined by their leader, there should be no doubt in its mind that while she is courting moderates and conservatives, her core values and agenda reflects its more than anyone else’s,” said the aide.

Gordon said Progressive Caucus members decided it was more worthwhile to urge Pelosi to incorporate their top items into the larger address, rather than to do their own.

“This year we decided that in the name of a unified Democratic message against the policies of the administration, we weren’t going to hold one,” Gordon said. “We learned [Pelosi and Daschle] were doing this, and in deference to them we decided not to hold an alternative.”