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House Progressives Cheer Populism in Van Hollen Plan

Grijalva is eyeing another bid to be ranking member of Natural Resources. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Grijalva is eyeing another bid to be ranking member of Natural Resources. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

For members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, the question of whether Democrats should move to the center or double down on left-leaning populism after November’s midterm whacking was never in doubt.  

Three months after those historic losses, it seems party leaders agree as CPC-endorsed policies — once dismissed as fringe ideas — are increasingly providing a new framework for the party. Progressives are especially optimistic about the massive economic overhaul proposal championed by Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the Budget Committee’s top Democrat and a de facto member of leadership.  

Van Hollen pitched the proposal Friday in Philadelphia at the CPC’s annual summit.  

“If economic populism is the new brand and the message, quite frankly — and with no bragging — the Progressive Caucus has been carrying that brand and message for five or six years,” said Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., during a phone interview a few hours before Van Hollen was scheduled to speak. “Mr. Van Hollen being here is an acknowledgment of that.”  

Van Hollen’s self-described “action plan to grow the paychecks of all, not just the wealth of a few” puts a new emphasis on wage growth and income disparity, progressives say.  

“We’re glad he prioritizes jobs, not just deficit reductions,” said Grijalva’s co-chairman, Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota.  

Most exciting for CPC members is Van Hollen’s inclusion of a transaction tax targeting high-frequency trading to minimize systemic risk in the financial market. Progressives appreciate the symbolism: The tax goes after Wall Street. Not even President Barack Obama has taken the leap of including a transaction tax in his budget proposals.  

“I’ve been introducing a transaction tax since 1996,” said Rep. Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., a member of the CPC. “Unfortunately, President Obama’s economic advisers are not favorably inclined, nor is the secretary of the Treasury, because they’re pawns of Wall Street.  

“I think it’s a good direction,” DeFazio said of Van Hollen’s proposal, “and a bit of a departure from some of the past proposals we’ve seen from my side of the aisle.”  

Van Hollen has been shopping his economic package to colleagues and stakeholders for several weeks, and many Democratic leaders like the pitch.  

If there’s enough support, it could become a centerpiece of the House Democratic Caucus’ messaging strategy for 2016. It also could be integrated into the official budget House Democrats will put forward later this year as an alternative to the House Republican plan.  

The Democratic budget is dead on arrival as legislation, but will inevitably be a talking point for the party on the campaign trail this cycle.  

What Van Hollen comes up with this year on behalf of House Democrats may even overlap with the CPC’s own budget vision, members say, especially with provisions in Van Hollen’s individual “action plan” already reflecting progressive priorities.  

If that happens, the House Democratic budget could end up looking more progressive than the budget Obama submitted to Congress in the days before the CPC retreat.  

“In the past, the Progressive Caucus budget has been in some circles summarily dismissed as just a statement,” Grijalva said. “But what was once dismissed as ideas that didn’t have any chance are now, I think, to some extent part of a blueprint.”  

While CPC members say Van Hollen’s solicitation of their buy-in on the budget is nothing new, some sources say the Maryland lawmaker’s courtship this year could signal larger ambitions. It’s no secret Van Hollen would like to ascend in the leadership ranks when a slot becomes available, and perhaps he sees a strategic advantage in earning the support of the House Democratic Caucus’ largest ideological faction (nearly 70 members).  

Ellison wouldn’t speculate on Van Hollen’s long game, but said, “I can simply tell you that he’s awesome and we’d be well served if he leads and continues to lead.”  

Another faction to whom Van Hollen must appeal, even just in terms of selling his economic “action plan,” is the New Democrat Coalition. With about 45 members, the group is working to gain some relevance after years of being left behind — much like the CPC. Unlike the CPC, however, the New Democrats think the way to win back control of the House is to embrace a broader, more centrist platform.  

DeFazio was one of many CPC members to dismiss that argument.  

“I have a swing district and it’s where I’ve been for 20-some odd years and been re-elected” talking about progressive issues, said the longtime incumbent, though the Oregon Democrat hasn’t faced a serious challenger since he was first elected in 1986.  

Right now, more than anything else, CPC members are just excited to have a seat at the table.  

“There were times when we didn’t have the kind of attention we’re having now, and we’re happy to have it,” Ellison said. “We’re happy to weigh in.”  

Katy O’Donnell and Nathan L. Gonzales contributed to this report.

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