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Progressives See Upside of Democratic Losses

Frustrated liberals who grouse that House leaders have been too deferential to moderate Democrats are gearing up to capitalize on what almost certainly will be a more left-leaning Caucus after Nov. 2.

House Democratic moderates appear likely to suffer heavy losses in the midterm election, and some progressives think the result will be a Democratic Caucus more ideologically unified around policy positions they support.

But leadership aides and moderates insist liberals are deluding themselves if they think their hand will be strengthened come January ‘ particularly if Democrats lose the majority ‘ and urge liberals to stop complaining and do more to help retain the majority.

Some liberals blame party leaders and moderates for what they view as missed opportunities over the past two years, ranging from the inclusion of restrictive abortion language in the health care law to the lack of action on comprehensive immigration reform and legislation barring workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Going forward, they promise that they will be better focused and unafraid to buck leadership if necessary.

Rep. Raúl Grijalva, co-chairman of the 83-member Congressional Progressive Caucus, said fed-up liberals are prepared to take a stand in the 112th Congress, perhaps even going as far as staging protest votes to register their discontent. The Arizona Democrat, who wants to stay on as CPC chairman if he wins his re-election campaign, cited leadership’s decision not to hold a vote prior to the midterm elections on extending the Bush-era tax cuts for the middle class as the latest in a long line of moves that had progressives fired up for the next Congress.

‘It’s what’s going to embolden us when we’ve come back,’ said Grijalva, who is locked in a tougher-than-expected race in a normally safe Democratic district. ‘It’s going to put us in the position where we say, ‘If we don’t get this, we’re not going to help you with this.”

Protest votes might be the only way progressives can get leadership to respond to them, Grijalva said. He expects a heated debate over the forthcoming recommendations of a bipartisan commission on debt reduction. Grijalva and other liberals are vowing to oppose any cuts to Social Security benefits, including raising the retirement age.

‘We tried to draw a line in the sand with public option, it didn’t work; tax cuts, it didn’t work. The next big test for us will be Social Security,’ he said.

Rep. Lynn Woolsey, a California Democrat who plans to step aside as CPC co-chairwoman after the elections, said progressives will keep pushing next year for a public option as part of the new health care law, advocate for changes to the No Child Left Behind Act (including axing the name) and try to bring U.S. troops home from Afghanistan.

‘Our voice, I know, will remain strong with our leadership and the White House,’ said Woolsey, who said she prefers less of a hard-line approach than the one Grijalva described. ‘We’ll have plenty to say, and we have plenty to do.’

Darcy Burner, the executive director of and the Progressive Congress Action Fund, said she’s only worried about four Progressive Caucus lawmakers’ races ‘ Grijalva and Reps. John Hall (D-N.Y.), Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) and Phil Hare (D-Ill.).

Burner said progressives will hold a strategic planning retreat in December ‘to pick what fights they want to make next year, which is something they’ve never done before.’

‘They are getting more organized and they are starting to understand much better how they can leverage the grass roots outside of Congress,’ she said.

During the debate over health care reform, CPC members threatened to vote against any bill that did not include a public option. But they capitulated, and in March all of them voted in favor of a final version of the health care bill that did not include the public option.

Liberal discontent has prompted the formation of grass-roots groups such as the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which has promoted primary challenges to moderate Democrats, and P Street Project, formed this summer to lobby for progressives’ agenda.

PCCC co-founder Adam Green said ‘Blue Dogs definitely got in the way’ this Congress, but he said he hopes Democratic leaders will ‘have a new fighting spirit in the new Congress.’

But those with close ties to moderates dispute the notion that liberals will have more clout next Congress.

‘To me it’s going to be the complete opposite,’ said one House staffer with ties to Blue Dogs. ‘The moderates that do survive are going to be much less inclined to take the tough votes that got them into hot water in the first place … because we’re going to get our butts handed to us in this election.’

Senior House Democratic aides also dismissed the idea that progressives will have more influence next year if Democrats somehow retain a far smaller majority, noting liberals simply won’t have the numbers to work their will.

‘We have to appease the remaining moderates,’ one aide said. ‘We could refuse to do so and not get to 218 and not advance the progressive agenda, but I assume that is not the choice they would want to make. Moderates are not going to care if we don’t move a lot of the things that progressives would like to see move.’