Progressive Caucus starts year with bigger roster, focus on unity
Liberal group resists comparisons to conservative House Freedom Caucus
Ideological infighting and internal battles have long been a part of politics. But this year, while some conservative Republicans staged a revolt against the leader of their party until their demands were met, progressive Democrats in the House are pitching unity.
The Congressional Progressive Caucus starts 2023 with a bigger roster, a bolder agenda and a commitment to working with both moderate Democrats and the Biden administration to fend off the GOP majority and promote workers’ rights, immigration and solutions to the climate crisis.
“We’re going to be a hell of an opposition party,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the Washington Democrat who leads the caucus. “We know Republicans are going to come with an extreme right-wing agenda.”
But, she added, "We can’t just be an opposition party. We're also going to have to be a proposition party, because our goal here is to make sure we get back into the majority in 2024.”
At 103 members — nearly half of the 212-member Democratic roster — progressives are poised to wield greater influence in a closely divided chamber. Among the caucus’ 16 new members are Maxwell Alejandro Frost of Florida, the first Generation Z member of Congress; Becca Balint, the first woman elected from Vermont; and Summer Lee, the first Black woman elected from Pennsylvania.
Although the Progressive Caucus is the largest it has ever been, most of its ambitious agenda is unlikely to come to fruition in a chamber controlled by Republicans. Instead, the caucus plans to press the Biden administration for executive action on a number of issues, including declaring a "climate emergency" and strengthening worker overtime rules, while also pushing back against GOP efforts to slash Social Security and Medicare.
Rep. Greg Casar, a Democrat from Texas who will serve as the caucus whip, is optimistic. He said the group will stay focused on economic issues, which he says bind Democrats across the ideological spectrum.
“If we look back to how people like FDR and LBJ built large Democratic majorities, it was with a more economically inclusive vision for the country,’’ Casar said. “That needs to be at the core of what the progressive caucus is driving at, and I think that will bring in a lot of our Democratic caucus members who may not be in the Progressive Caucus but can team up with us on these economic fairness issues.”
‘Laptops and conspiracy theories’
The division within the House GOP demonstrated by the fight over choosing a speaker offers an opening for liberal Democrats, Casar said.
"If the Republicans are just going to focus on a circus of ... people's laptops and conspiracy theories, it presents an opportunity for the Democrats to both be an opposition to the Trumpist Republican Party but also to show folks what a positive vision for the country can be,'' he said.
While progressives are seeking to present a unified image in the face of GOP discord, they also have tangled with members of their own party over policy, most notably the strategy last year for bringing up for votes a bipartisan infrastructure bill and a package of tax, climate and health care measures.
DeWayne Lucas, a political scientist at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, says the divide between various factions within the Democratic Party is overblown.
“While there are numerous incidences of where the caucus or groups of its members have pushed their agenda in ways that have disrupted the party’s goals, there are far more examples of the caucus yielding on its ideal positions for compromises that advance the party and policy,’’ Lucas said in an email. “As long as they see their progressive values reflective in the goals of the party, [caucus] members have worked with the party to move legislation forward.”
That stands in sharp contrast to the tactics deployed by the House Freedom Caucus.
“The Freedom Caucus, with roots in the Tea Party movement, emerged and advanced in Congress by working against the leadership,” Lucas said. “Political success for the Freedom Caucus has often been defined by opposition to the leadership, avoidance of compromise within and outside the party, and extreme policy positions that quickly become moving targets.”
Jayapal also rejected the comparison between the two groups. "The Freedom Caucus is a caucus of no, and the Progressive Caucus is a caucus of yes," she said. "I think we showed in the last session that we know how to push, but we also know how to land the plane, we know how to govern.”
Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which works to elect more liberal candidates, declared that "labels don't matter" and getting bogged down in internal politics masks the goals Democrats share, particularly on economic matters. "Progressives ... will help to make the public case and put oxygen in the room for bold ideas that the Biden administration might be inclined to take but really needs support for in order to get out of the gate," he said.
Six of the incoming freshman are aligned with the progressive Working Families Party. Joe Dinkin, the party's national campaigns director, said those candidates — some of whom had to beat back GOP efforts to paint them as socialists — won by focusing on legislative victories such as passage of the climate, health care and tax package, also referred to as the Inflation Reduction Act.
"In the last Congress, Democrats enacted some real wins — but a few Democrats sided with corporate power over the interests of working people, and limited what we could achieve, including on prescription drugs and the child tax credit,'' Dinkin said. "We believe we have to paint a clear picture of how we’ll use government to put working people first — and that’s the playbook we want to see Democrats follow, on the campaign trail and in office."
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, the incoming House minority leader, shares some policy priorities with progressives, including advocating for voting rights and addressing police brutality. But he did not sign on to the Green New Deal, one of the caucus’ signature measures. And he selected Rep. Suzan DelBene of Washington, who was the chair of the pro-business New Democrat Coalition, to lead the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Jeffries, the first Black leader of a congressional caucus from either party, met with members of the Progressive Caucus shortly after he was elevated to the post.
"Hakeem Jeffries' instincts are more progressive than some people realize, particularly on economic issues," Green said. "In general, he wants Democrats to win ... and he's a savvy person who knows that bold, populist economic politics ... are extremely popular even in red and purple districts. He is well lined up to exceed expectations."