When Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) was first elected to Congress in 2016, the Congressional Progressive Caucus had a smaller political footprint.
The Congressional Progressive Caucus’s numbers were growing, but the group was unwieldy and ideologically diverse. What’s more, the caucus’s political action committee had raised just $300,000 in the 2016 election cycle.
In just four years’ time, the caucus has undergone a serious makeover.
Ahead of the current Congress, Jayapal and her then-co-chair, Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), ushered in tougher membership criteria that are designed to make the caucus a more cohesive voting bloc.
Jayapal, who began as a co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus in 2019, is now the caucus’s sole chair. And the Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC spent more than $3.8 million in the 2020 election cycle supporting its candidates.
In an interview with HuffPost, Jayapal argued that the caucus’s greater ideological cohesion and political clout have helped the progressive wing of the party shape policy.
In particular, she gives the Congressional Progressive Caucus credit for limiting efforts to means-test the $1,400 pandemic stimulus payments in President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan.
“We’re more nimble as a caucus,” she said. “And so we’ve ended up getting a lot of our priorities in.”
Jayapal hopes to build on those gains this cycle. On Tuesday, Jayapal announced that she will be endorsing former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner. Turner, a fellow ally of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), already has the blessing of the Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC.
“She’s a phenomenal, bold, progressive candidate who has been doing the work for a very long time,” Jayapal said.
“In many ways, she has had a not dissimilar path to mine. She’s been an activist on the outside,” she added. “She’s served in an elected office to really try to bring about change, and she’s campaigning and has been tirelessly campaigning, first for Bernie Sanders and now for her own race on the exact progressive platform that we believe is necessary.”
Turner is running in the kind of open primary that is a sweet spot for the Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC. With some notable exceptions, the caucus has stayed out of challenges against incumbent House Democrats, leaving that type of controversial work to outside groups such as Justice Democrats.
Overall, in 2020, eight out of the 17 candidates that the Congressional Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC endorsed won their general-election races.
Several winners are dyed-in-the-wool progressives, including Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.), for whom the caucus spent $178,000 in an open primary. Reps. Jamaal Bowman of New York and Cori Bush of Missouri, whom the caucus endorsed after their primary upsets, are also major additions to the left-leaning bloc.
But with greater involvement in elections comes greater risk, and the Congressional Progressive Caucus has already had its share of high-profile losses.
Just this Saturday, caucus endorsee Karen Carter Peterson lost a nonpartisan special election in Louisiana against fellow state Sen. Troy Carter. Carter, a Democrat, had been backed by many Republican elected officials and donors.
“Even when we don't win every race, we believe it's really important to be recruiting, investing early and helping our progressive candidates in races across the country run strong races.”
“Even when we don’t win every race, we believe it’s really important to be recruiting, investing early and helping our progressive candidates in races across the country run strong races,” Jayapal said.
Due to retirements, Cabinet appointments, some losses and the departure of Rep. Angie Craig of Minnesota from the caucus, the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) now has 93 members.
Until a June 1 special election in New Mexico and the conclusion of Turner’s race in November, the CPC will have three fewer members than it had in the last Congress. But because the House Democratic Caucus as a whole lost 12 members, the CPC now makes up a bigger share of the Democratic delegation in the House.
After adopting stricter membership criteria, Jayapal recalled, “people thought we were going to lose members ― no, we’re actually a larger percentage of the Democratic caucus.”
If elected, Turner would replace Marcia Fudge, who vacated Ohio’s 11th Congressional District to serve as Biden’s secretary of housing and urban development.
Since Fudge was a member of the CPC, a win for Turner would effectively just backfill the seat Fudge vacated on the left-leaning bloc.
But accounting for Turner’s star power and ideological zeal would make her a significant addition. While Fudge was a mainstream liberal, Turner has developed a reputation as a boundary-pushing firebrand of the kind at home with the “Squad” of progressive women elected to Congress in 2018.
As the CPC seeks to shape legislative outcomes, more dedicated members like Turner could serve as a nucleus of hardcore progressives willing to hold the line in negotiations with the larger House Democratic Caucus.
Thus far this year, the CPC feels as though it has been able to fight for its priorities through behind-the-scenes negotiation.
“We work very early to get our things in. We decide our priorities early,” Jayapal said. “Then we push with the committees. Then we push with the speaker.”
In the last Congress, the closest that the CPC came to a head-on collision with Democratic leadership was over H.R. 3, a bill to lower prescription drug prices. The CPC threatened to withhold its vote for the bill if it did not empower the federal government to negotiate prices for a broader set of drugs. Leadership blinked and the progressives won.
Health care policy is once again likely to become a point of conflict between House progressives and the Democratic Party brass, including President Biden.
Jayapal is leading a group of 80 House Democrats calling on Biden to lower the Medicare eligibility age to 55. The Biden administration reportedly plans to introduce a spending bill that allots $200 billion to shore up the Affordable Care Act’s exchange subsidies, but that does not expand Medicare.
Jayapal is also part of a group of progressive lawmakers calling on the Biden administration to waive the patents on U.S.-manufactured COVID-19 vaccines to allow developing countries to manufacture them locally. The Biden administration has not acceded to the request.
But Jayapal suggested that a knock-down, drag-out fight is not coming. The CPC exhausts other options and carefully weighs the tradeoffs before it decides to withhold its support for a Democratic bill, according to the progressive leader.
“Any group of a few people can have the effect of bringing down a bill,” she said. “And if it’s a very, very progressive bill but it doesn’t include one priority, it’s just always a tough call to make.”