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What’s in a position? This is how caucuses show their strength

Many congressional caucuses take official positions to demonstrate the amount of support for specific policy ideas

New Democrat Coalition Chairman Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., said the group changed its bylaws to make it easier to take official positions as a coalition. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
New Democrat Coalition Chairman Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., said the group changed its bylaws to make it easier to take official positions as a coalition. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The New Democrat Coalition has amended its bylaws to make it easier for the group of centrist Democrats to take official positions on policy ideas or legislation — a tool used by congressional caucuses to show their strength as they try to line up support behind specific policy ideas or legislation. 

Procedures for taking an official position vary by caucus. Most include a vote of their members, but thresholds for what level of a majority is needed to adopt the position differ among caucuses. 

The New Democrat Coalition’s threshold is 50 percent plus one member. The group recently grew to 101 members, so it would need 51 lawmakers to agree to a policy idea or legislation before it became an official position of the caucus. 

The change the coalition made to its bylaws last week was to allow its leadership to initiate endorsement of a policy position or a bill. Previously, only the coalition’s policy task forces could bring recommendations before the group to endorse. 

To bring a position before the larger coalition, the New Democrats’ leadership needs to approve it by a two-thirds vote themselves. Another change in the bylaws would allow the coalition to solicit votes directly from members rather than just those present for a meeting in which a vote on the position occurs. 

“We’ve heard from members that may have an interest in having the coalition take stances on our biggest priorities this Congress,” New Democrat Coalition Chairman Derek Kilmer said, explaining the bylaw changes are designed to make that easier. 

The Washington Democrat said he envisions the coalition endorsing specific measure or sets of bills that best fulfill the group’s policy mission, but it won’t weigh in on every issue.

“I don’t envision this as requiring that the coalition takes a position on everything,” Kilmer said. 

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Other groups

The Congressional Progressive Caucus, whose membership tilts further left, is also reviewing its process for taking official positions. 

The current process to bring forth a position for debate, which allows the caucus’s issue-based task forces or leadership to offer a proposal, is expected to remain the same. But the CPC currently has different thresholds for adopting an official position — based, for example, on whether it’s a policy idea or a bill that’s just been introduced or legislation being debated on the floor — and those are under review.

The Blue Dog Coalition, a group of 24 fiscally conservative Democrats, allows any member of the group to recommend a bill or policy idea for the coalition to support. It requires a two-thirds majority vote — 16 of its members — to adopt a policy as an official coalition position. 

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus also requires a two-thirds majority vote to take an official position. With 38 members in the caucus, that means 25 need to support the position for it to be adopted. 

The Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus requires a majority vote of its 25-member executive committee to take an official position. The caucus has 39 associate members who are part of the group but do not have voting privileges. 

Congressional Black Caucus executive director Kevin Harris said the group’s whip helps provide the executive board with input on where the caucus members are on issues.

“There are also various task forces that have been formed which help to take the lead on various issues and formulate many caucus positions,” he said.

The caucus does not vote on the positions the task forces formulate, but they are discussed at a member meeting to ensure there is broad enough support for the position, Harris said. 

House Republicans also have party caucuses that take official positions. 

The hard-line conservative House Freedom Caucus probably has the most stringent process on Capitol Hill, requiring support from 80 percent of its roughly three dozen members to take an official position. Once the group settles on a stance, members are bound to vote that way on the floor, although they each receive a few free passes per Congress. 

The far larger Republican Study Committee only has its steering panel adopt positions. The 20-member Steering Committee, which includes the current and past chairmen and other select members, typically takes positions after the broader group of approximately 140 members has discussed the topic. 

The Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group that allows for 24 members on each side of the aisle, requires a 75 percent majority to take an official position. A majority of the caucus’s Democratic and Republican members must contribute to the 75 percent to ensure the positions are truly bipartisan.

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