Last week, something unusual happened: The Congressional Progressive Caucus won a clear, if temporary, victory against the more conservative members of the House Democratic Caucus.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) conceded to pressure from the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) on Sept. 30 when she delayed a promised vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill favored by conservative Democrats.
The House’s 96-person progressive bloc, once dismissed as too large and ideologically inchoate to wield real power, had made clear that it had the votes to tank the infrastructure bill, pending firmer guarantees about the passage of the more progressive Build Back Better budget reconciliation package.
Normally, conservative Democrats, who are typically more willing than progressives to let legislation die, are the most adept at using hardball tactics to dictate the party’s agenda.
But a unique confluence of events, plus years of organizing, prepared the CPC to become an influential bloc on par with any other faction in the party.
“It’s just been an amazing show of collective force,” CPC Chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the architect of progressives’ power play, told HuffPost. “I think people are really feeling the power of working as a collective and seeing the pride that comes in putting the Build Back Better bill back on the table where otherwise it would have been dead.”
Without significant reforms adopted last year, the CPC might have proven incapable of its recent legislative coup.
Jayapal, who was first elected to Congress in 2016, quickly ascended CPC’s leadership ranks, becoming co-chair alongside Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) after the 2018 midterm elections.
As co-chair, Jayapal found that while the organization had grown to an unprecedented size, it was a mix of hardcore leftists like the members of the “Squad” and more tepid liberals, some of whom also belonged to the business-friendly New Democrat Coalition.
Occasionally, the CPC was able to develop enough consensus to throw its weight around. In December 2019, for example, the caucus’ threat to withhold support for H.R. 3, Democrats’ prescription drug price negotiation bill, prompted Pelosi to expand the minimum number of drugs subject to negotiation from 25 to 50.
But more often, the caucus lacked the cohesion to leverage its power as decisively as either the right-wing House Freedom Caucus had under GOP rule, or conservative Democratic Rep. Josh Gottheimer’s bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus had.
“When I came to Congress, I just felt that the CPC was more of a social club ― even though [former Rep.] Keith Ellison and [Rep.] Raúl [Grijalva] and Mark had all been working to start to change it,” Jayapal recalled.
“There just were a lot of pieces that were not there if you are going to try and have an organizing strategy on the inside,” she added. “It’s just not enough to have a couple people and say, ‘OK, we’re going to hold our position.’”
“When I came to Congress, I just felt that the CPC was more of a social club.”
Drawing on her pre-congressional career as a political organizer and founder of the immigration rights group OneAmerica, Jayapal determined that in addition to greater legislative discipline, the CPC would need more staff and better coordination with the outside.
She also concluded, in conjunction with Pocan, that the co-chair structure was too cumbersome.
“We were the only caucus that had two chairs, which meant we could always be played off [each other] or slowed down,” Jayapal said.
Jayapal readied a slate of reforms, including the consolidation of power in the hands of a sole chair, an increase in dues designed to boost hiring, and a new rule requiring CPC members to vote with the caucus a minimum of times.
Under the new system, which the CPC’s members adopted by a two-thirds vote last November, every CPC member must vote in accordance with positions that two-thirds of the caucus has agreed to adopt. (CPC members are allowed to vote out of step with these caucus positions one-third of the time, however, without jeopardizing their membership in the caucus.)
Despite some griping from members ― both in private and in the Beltway press ― the CPC’s adoption of the stricter new rules prompted just one departure, quelling fears that greater cohesion would come at the expense of the caucus’ size.
Jayapal’s fundraising gambit also paid off. The CPC, which had one permanent staff member in 2019, now has the resources to employ five full-time workers.
Arriving in Washington as the sole CPC chairperson, Jayapal immediately set out to clarify the organization’s role in President Joe Biden’s presidency.
In the past, Jayapal had been frustrated by a handful of members’ decisions to engage in symbolic rebellions against party leadership that angered Pelosi without having anything to show for it. For example, in January 2019, all of two CPC members mounted a futile, spur-of-the-moment revolt against Congress’ adoption of pay-as-you-go budget rule opposed by progressives supportive of deficit spending.
Jayapal instead set out to make sure that the CPC would choose battles it could win, both because of favorable external dynamics and a cause sympathetic enough for members to rally behind.
To that end, Jayapal surveyed her members in March about the kinds of policies they would like to see Biden emphasize in a budget reconciliation package. Drawing a consensus from the results of the survey, the CPC made public in April a list of five core groups of policy priorities.
“That’s how you build collective consensus: If people feel like they’re part of a process,” she said.
The CPC wanted Biden and Democratic leadership to pass legislation that would: increase the number of home health care workers; invest in affordable housing; empower the federal government to negotiate prescription drug prices and use the savings to expand Medicare; tackle climate change with a combination of mandates and strategic investments; and create a path to citizenship for a host of undocumented immigrants and temporary residents.
Once Democratic leadership decided ― against the CPC’s wishes ― to split Biden’s priorities into two bills ― a more modest, bipartisan physical infrastructure bill, and a budget reconciliation package that would have to pass on a narrow party line, the threat to the CPC’s priorities took shape.
Progressive leaders feared that if they agreed to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill first without any conditions, conservative Democrats, having already accomplished their main goal, would have unlimited leverage to water down the reconciliation package by threatening to let the bill die altogether.
Jayapal and her team, including CPC Whip Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), hunkered down to figure out how to ensure that the more progressive budget bills would be enacted in as robust a form as possible.
They decided that they would try to force party leaders to pass the bills simultaneously.
To make that happen, the CPC would need to exercise its leverage. Conservative Democrats were eager to pass the bipartisan infrastructure package, but notwithstanding the “bipartisan” moniker, the bill was likely to get just a handful of Republican votes.
That meant that the party’s right flank could not afford significant attrition from the CPC.
So Jayapal made the case to her membership that they should threaten to withhold support for the bipartisan infrastructure bill if they did not receive ironclad assurances that Biden and Democratic leaders would pursue as far-reaching a reconciliation package as possible.
In June, the CPC whipped its membership and found that a solid majority of its members were committed to voting down the infrastructure bill without assurances that the reconciliation bill would be voted on nearly simultaneously.
Jayapal remembers telling Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, “We won’t oppose the infrastructure bill moving forward on its own. But we are telling you, we’re not going to vote for one without the other.”
Pelosi was initially skeptical, according to Jayapal, but it soon became her position as well. Throughout August, Pelosi expressed her intention to pass a budget rule enabling the relevant committees to draft the two bills at the same time. All the while, Jayapal stayed in close contact with members of her caucus, making sure they didn’t waver in their commitment to the CPC’s plan of action.
“People feel really proud of the caucus and very invested in the identity [of the caucus], and I just don’t think that can be minimized at all,” she said.
“That’s how you build collective consensus: If people feel like they’re part of a process.”
Given Democrats’ slim, single-digit majority in the House, though, they would need every Democrat to vote “yes” to even proceed with the legislative drafting process. Sensing his leverage, Gottheimer, a New Jersey congressman, led a group of nine conservative Democrats threatening to hold up the law-writing process if Pelosi did not commit to putting the infrastructure bill up for a vote first.
Pelosi mollified Gottheimer with the promise of a vote on the bill by Sept. 27. But as the date approached, conservative Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) signaled their opposition to the $3.5-trillion reconciliation package, jeopardizing its passage.
Jayapal made clear to Pelosi and Biden that the CPC had the votes to kill the infrastructure bill and would vote it down until the reconciliation package had a clear path to becoming law. Pelosi, who recognized the threat as credible, delayed a vote on the infrastructure bill indefinitely.
“They were very clear that we had the votes. They did not doubt that,” Jayapal said. “I’m not somebody who says, ‘We have the votes,’ [without meaning it].”
Despite his own penchant for playing hardball, Gottheimer was apoplectic.
“We cannot let this small faction on the far left — who employ Freedom Caucus tactics ... destroy the President’s agenda,” he fumed in a statement.
Jayapal passionately rejects the comparison to the right-wing faction notorious for tying House Republican leadership in knots during the first two years of Donald Trump’s presidency.
“The progressive caucus is a caucus of ‘yes’; the Freedom Caucus is a caucus of ‘no,’” said Jayapal, noting the Freedom Caucus’ refusal to acknowledge the severity of the Capitol riot on Jan. 6. “It’s just such a crazy comparison.”
Jayapal also rejects the idea that any ideological faction ― be it the Freedom Caucus or otherwise ― has a monopoly on the tactic of threatening to walk away from the negotiating table to increase its leverage.
“Workers across this country have used that tactic over and over again with the Fight for $15, with collective bargaining, with organizing,” she said. “That’s what I’m modeling my work on.”
Some media accounts have incorrectly characterized the CPC’s success as a function of Biden “throw[ing] in with the left.”
In fact, progressives would prefer a much larger and more ambitious reconciliation package. In June, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) floated the idea of a package that would increase spending by $6 trillion over a 10-year window. (Sanders is a founding member of the CPC and the only senator who still claims membership in the caucus.)
What is instead true is that congressional progressives are currently more aligned with Biden than their more conservative Democratic colleagues. That’s because Biden wants to pass a historic reconciliation package that addresses climate change and scales up the social safety net to include paid family leave and child care subsidies, while conservative Democrats are, at best, agnostic about those priorities and are currently fighting to water them down.
“We are about delivering for working people across this country,” Jayapal said. “We are about accepting truth and science. And in this particular instance, we’re about delivering on the president’s agenda.”
Jayapal, who supported Sanders in the presidential primary, admitted that she was pleasantly surprised to see Biden embracing progressive ideas that he sounded more ambivalent about on the campaign trail.
“It’s been so awesome to see the president of the United States, who ran as a moderate, talking about the need to tax the wealthiest millionaires and billionaires ... and proposing a range of fair taxation options that by far get us to more than $3.5 trillion if we were to do all of those,” she said.
“We’re going to deliver both bills to the president’s desk. We’re very committed to that.”
Since Biden has made clear that he wants all of the new spending in the reconciliation package to be funded by an equivalent amount of budget savings and revenue hikes, Jayapal encouraged him during a meeting at the Oval Office to refer to the legislation not as a $3.5-trillion package but as a “zero-dollar bill.”
Biden appeared to adopt this framing during a recent conversation with reporters.
“We talk about price tags,” Biden said at a Sept. 24 press conference. “It is zero price tag on the debt.”
Still, the fate of Biden’s agenda and the CPC’s flex of its power on his behalf remain in jeopardy.
Manchin and Sinema are still haggling with the White House over lower dollar figures, though it is not clear which priorities they would like to sacrifice.
The CPC would prefer to shorten the duration of many reforms in the bill to accommodate the conservative lawmakers, rather than cut whole policies out or saddle them with greater means-testing and work requirements, Jayapal said.
In the course of negotiations, however, she refuses to lay out any “red lines” that, if crossed, would preclude her support for either the infrastructure bill or the reconciliation package.
“We’re going to deliver both bills to the president’s desk,” she said. “We’re very committed to that.”
One thing we aren’t likely to see in the coming weeks is Jayapal joining the immigration activists who have been confronting Sinema in person. At Arizona State University, where Sinema was teaching a course on Sunday, one group of activists followed her into the restroom, prompting some lawmakers to condemn the demonstrators’ conduct.
“Even as an activist, I didn’t make these things personal in the sense of going to somebody’s house,” Jayapal said. “I just think we’re better off when we keep these things on the high road.”
“At the same time, I think it’s really frustrating for activists when a senator won’t meet with them or won’t deliver on the promises they made when those activists came out and voted,” she added. “So I’m not condoning the behavior, but I think the way to address it is to make sure people actually get to talk to you, and not just the biggest lobbyists.”