Is the Congressional Progressive Caucus ready to become the Democrats’ version of the Freedom Caucus?
Much of the discussion of the ongoing struggle for Democrats to hit the triple bank shot of passing a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package, passing a social-welfare bill more than twice that size, and raising the federal borrowing limit has focused on the powers of Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Biden to deliver the goods. The great Paul Kane of the Washington Post captured this perfectly: “If she can usher [Biden’s] ambitious agenda into law, Pelosi will cement her place as one of the most powerful members of Congress in the history of the country.”
Kane is right. If Pelosi, who returned from the wilderness in 2018 after losing the speakership in 2010 and failing to retake it for three cycles, can get through this narrow strait, she will join the likes of Tip O’Neill and Sam Rayburn among the great Democratic House leaders of the past century. Biden is looking for something different. He is mistrusted by the radical left in his party and is still smarting from his botched Afghanistan retreat and a summer coronavirus resurgence. Given the questions around his viability as a candidate for re-election, a triple-flutter-blast failure right now could make him a lame duck in the first half of his first term.
While it is certainly true that how these two members of the old guard manage the coming weeks will shape their futures and define them for history, the bigger question for the Democratic Party and the nation is whether this is the moment when the Democrats fall victim to the same maladies that already afflict congressional Republicans. Perhaps both parties in Congress will be held captive by a clutch of performative cable news and social media stars who use their voting bloc’s power to seek attention more than legislation. Pelosi’s iron control may give way to the pleading appeasements of whomever the Democratic version of Kevin McCarthy will be. It may be that Congress has to hit bottom before it can start to become a functional branch of government. And a Democratic Party bossed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and The Squad and a Republican Party dominated by Jim Jordan and the Freedom Caucus would produce a Congress as close to rock bottom as Charlie Sheen at an Insane Clown Posse concert.
Every progressive Democrat in Congress knows that this is as good as things are going to get for moving far-left legislation until at least 2025. What we don’t know is what they’re going to do with that knowledge.
Republicans are likely to retake the House of Representatives in next year’s midterms. It may be just the five seats they need to barely claim the majority, or a more comfortable margin. Whatever the final numbers, progressive wish-list items would be doomed in a Republican-controlled House. But that’s not to say that the House progressives wouldn’t have more power inside their own party in the minority. As the GOP’s Freedom Caucus can attest, midterm punishments fall harder on moderate members from swing districts. Radicals tend to hold safer seats, leaving them stronger as a bloc in the wake of significant losses. The Senate is anyone’s guess. While some radical Republicans seem determined to give away the Senate again—e.g. Ohio and Georgia—the GOP has some reasons for hope, as in New Hampshire and Nevada. Even in a best-case Senate for Democrats, though, moderates like Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia will still have a de-facto veto over progressive priorities.
And the legislative freeze-out will begin long before the midterms. The coming weeks will be the final window of serious legislative opportunity until January 2023. Regardless of what’s coming in midterms, members of every ideological stripe will soon enough be too focused on re-election campaigns and too afraid of voters to do anything of substance. This is the last chance to squeeze the juice out of their 2020 total takeover.
Pelosi and Biden last week gave the 100-member Congressional Progressive Caucus what it wanted. The group dug in its heels and refused to support the popular, bipartisan infrastructure bill unless there was concrete proof that the riskier social welfare package—currently priced at $3.5 trillion—would be brought forward. Caucus boss Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington state, an acolyte of Sen. Bernie Sanders, has vowed that her group is willing to see all of Biden’s first-term agenda go down before knuckling under. The word on the Hill is that the progressive caucus is itself divided on the issue, but that a small majority of more extreme members in the group is driving the hardline stance. Given the rhetoric on the radical left these days, it’s not at all evident what the way back to consensus looks like.
There are two ways for progressives to look at this moment: 1) Progressives must use this time for all it’s worth. Worse tradeoffs are just ahead, so now is the time to go for the gold. Better to try and fail than not to try at all. And hey, being in the majority of the minority has its benefits, as described above. 2) Taking a hard line and derailing all of the package, including the most popular elements, would turn Democrats more sharply against the radical left. If the blue team closes this two-year period with little to show for their trouble but an unpopular vote to raise the borrowing cap, judgement against the Bernie-ite left would be even harsher than it was after the party’s disappointing 2020 House showing.
The worst-case scenario for Democrats right now is that they could come out of this ordeal not just with nothing to show for it, but with 50 or so members having discovered that they can hold the party hostage. Democrats in recent years have been more disciplined and team-oriented than the congressional GOP, but we may find soon that they were just slower to break down.