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Progressives Boast of New Clout

Buoyed by the relative success of their efforts in the ongoing Iraq War debate, the liberal lawmakers of the Congressional Progressive Caucus are looking to parlay their newfound influence on a range of other issues.

“We have made an impact on the leadership,” asserted Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), a key Progressive Caucus member who also chairs the Out of Iraq Caucus, referring to recent weeks of House debate over the Iraq War emergency spending bill. “We are a group that cannot be ignored. Perhaps some people were surprised by our strength.”

While the liberal Democrats count among their ranks 70 House lawmakers, nearly one-third of the 232-member majority — including 12 full-committee chairmen and numerous subcommittee chairmen — the caucus is often viewed as less persuasive than some of its notably smaller counterparts, such the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition.

But within the past few months, progressive lawmakers assert they have begun to turn back that image, notably building on their opposition to the Iraq War as Congress and the White House continue to spar over funding military operations.

“The Progressive Caucus is becoming much more of a force within the Democratic Caucus,” said Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), himself a Progressive Caucus member.

The caucus itself has long maintained a “Progressive Promise” agenda — highlighting issues such as affordable health care, fair trade, civil rights and liberties, global peace and environmental protections — but has begun to pay additional attention to developing opinions on specific policy proposals, including immigration and trade.

“It’s not only Iraq, but it’s the broader Democratic agenda,” said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who serves as CPC co-chairwoman along with Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.).

“We have a very diverse Progressive Caucus, and so we have task forces that are developing principal positions on immigration, health care, trade, national security … You can’t be effective if you don’t have clear positions on all the major policies that are before us,” she later added.

Those efforts include a recent Caucus meeting on immigration proposals and an upcoming discussion Tuesday on trade measures expected on the House floor.

“Our goal is to try to get a majority of the majority to try and support the positions that we hold on trade,” explained freshman Rep. Phil Hare (D-Ill.), who sits on an internal CPC task force on trade and cited workers’ rights, environmental standards and the prohibition of fast-track authority among likely topics at the upcoming discussion.

“We’ve been a great caucus of ideas … but this session a caucus of ideas with a strategy to implement,” said Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), another Progressive Caucus member.

While the caucus has not reached its goal of ending combat operations, Members note that progressives have yielded numerous meetings with Democratic leaders in recent weeks on the Iraq War — one of which resulted in progressives providing the critical votes to pass the first version of the spending bill in March, which would later be vetoed by President Bush.

Many liberal lawmakers also cite their successful efforts last month to bring a measure on immediate troop withdrawal from Iraq to the House floor as a major victory.

According to those present at a March meeting between Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and progressive Members, the California lawmaker expressed hesitancy about bringing a withdrawal measure to the floor. At the time, she argued that the bill, sponsored by Lee, would be unlikely to garner more than 70 votes on the House floor and could be characterized as a potential “sign of weakness.”

While Democratic leaders subsequently included a vote on whether to withdraw from Iraq in a second version of the Iraq spending bill, progressive lawmakers raised concerns the legislation likely would be watered down in a House-Senate conference.

During rule-making on the spending bill, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) lobbied House leaders for an additional, immediate vote on withdrawal and won agreement to move that measure to the floor in early May, in the hours prior to passage of the spending bill.

Although the withdrawal measure ultimately failed, 255-171, progressives hailed the vote, and the unexpectedly high support, as a success.

“On Iraq the Progressive Caucus is representing the mainstream view of America. … That’s where the momentum is coming from,” McGovern said Wednesday.

Still, many liberal Democrats also credit their surge to the fact that their party once again controls the House, acknowledging it is obviously easier to serve at the liberal end of the political spectrum now than it was under a conservative Republican majority.

“In the past we weren’t in the majority, so we were always pushing back. Now we want to pull people with us, which is a lot more positive,” Woolsey said.

Waxman echoed that sentiment, stating: “We do have a Democratic majority and a Speaker and leadership that is much more open to hearing views of progressive and liberal Democrats.”

Before entering the ranks of leadership, Pelosi herself once claimed membership in the liberal caucus.

But some Democratic observers question whether the liberal lawmakers’ influence has really expanded at all in the 110th Congress, arguing the starting point for much legislation in the House already is tilted toward the Progressive Caucus because it includes much of the Democratic base.

Under such a scenario, concessions become necessary to secure the votes of centrist or conservative Democrats, many of whom also tend to represent more competitive districts.

“You have to be conscious of your marginal districts, and Republicans weren’t. They paid the price for it,” said one senior Democratic aide.

Those moves toward the political center also provide the Democratic majority with more ability to “sell” its agenda across the country, the aide noted.

And while liberal lawmakers may praise the increased attention they have received during the Iraq War debate, some Democrats credit it more to their resolve on the issue than on influence with leadership.

“Obviously they were the last votes that fell into place on Iraq [in March], so you’re going to end up getting more meetings,” the aide said.

Members of the liberal faction, however, credit their achievements, in part, to a renewed effort to unite on issues.

“I think we’re learning how to be more disciplined, which is always a challenge,” McGovern said.

Whether progressives will be able to maintain their newfound energy on a variety of issues and produce a significant voting bloc, however, remains to be seen.

“Issues are different. You can’t necessarily go from one issue to another,” said Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.), another progressive member.

But Woolsey, who like other liberals notes that staff members are often overlooked among the caucus’ assets, asserts such arguments are moot, noting that progressive lawmakers did not vote in unison on many of the recent Iraq votes.

“I would never want to say that progressives are walking in lockstep: We’re typical Democrats,” she said, and later added: “If we could gain momentum from Iraq, we won’t lose it on other issues.”

In fact, Hare recalled that following one vote on Iraq spending, which Woolsey had opposed with a handful of Democrats, the California lawmaker told him she wished he would have sided against the bill.

“The one nice things about progressives, and about this caucus in particular, is that we can agree to disagree,” Hare said, and later added: “I think there’s plenty of issues that can pull us together.”

Even as the caucus turns to those other issues, however, ending the Iraq War will remain one of its major concerns, Woolsey said.

“We’re not going to quit in Iraq. … It’s not even close to being through,” Woolsey said, adding that the McGovern vote “was a milestone, but we’re still in Iraq. Until that’s behind us, that will be a huge effort on our part.”

Of herself, Lee and Waters — who have together led the Iraq efforts — Woolsey said, “We’re a force to be reckoned with and we know it.”

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