Progressive Democrats: The New Power Bloc In Congress

These Members of Congress played hardball from the beginning, and that hardball made sure this bill included strong, binding legislation to end the war.
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The progressive Democratic Members of Congress who had been considering trying to kill the supplemental bill that includes binding language to end the war made a deal with Speaker Pelosi to provide the necessary votes to pass the legislation. This is a principled and shrewd move that these lawmakers should be applauded for if and when the bill passes. And it is a courageous move because it is never, ever easy to swallow a compromise, even if it is clearly the right thing to do to achieve long-term goals. These Members of Congress played hardball from the beginning, and that hardball made sure this bill included strong, binding legislation to end the war. Without that hardball, that legislation wouldn't be in this supplemental at all. In fact, such binding language probably wouldn't even be voted on at all in any form, much less have a solid chance to be passed by the full House today. And because of their efforts, progressive Democrats have not only brought the war closer to an end, but they have become one of the most powerful blocs in the U.S. Congress.

Like Chris Bowers, I am exhausted. I've been spending a lot of time traveling for the Progressive States Network, which has been at the forefront of the effort to stop the war with its Anti-Escalation Campaign that has gotten 29 states to introduce antiwar resolutions (this week's news: the Oregon House passed the resolution). In hasty cellphone calls while running through airports and in email correspondence late at night in motels I've been talking to lawmakers on Capitol Hill who have been agonizing over this vote, I've been banging out memos analyzing possible outcomes, and I've been working with other incredibly courageous groups to build a coalition to pressure the Congress to do what it was elected to do.

But in my exhaustion, I'll say three things:

1) These progressive lawmakers are true heroes because they are displaying a seriousness about ending the war, rather than merely a seriousness about protesting the war. Protest and pressure are critical in the lead up to legislative action - but when it comes time for that action, we hire lawmakers to do just that: make laws. That process does not tend to create perfect outcomes, and the supplemental is by no means perfect. But this bill, with its binding language to end the war, disproportionately tilts toward the antiwar side when looked at in the context of a Congress whose majority is unfortunately NOT antiwar. That's a key point here: The majority of Americans oppose this war, and Democrats hold a majority in Congress, but the majority of Congress is not (yet) antiwar. That's unfortunate and I don't like it, but it's a fact. Passing a bill this strong and binding, then, is a major step forward.

2) Some readers keep saying that Bush will ignore whatever binding law Congress passes, and thus this Iraq bill is unacceptable. I agree that it's very likely Bush will try to ignore the law like he has so many other laws - but we can't ask legislators to legislate under that premise. The whole legislative process is about making laws, meaning a legislator has to assume the law that is passed will be followed. Legislating under the whole "he won't follow the law" premise is really a giant catch-22. If he won't follow the law, why legislate anything? (And this goes even for spending bills - take a good look at military appropriations bills and you'll find that the President of the United States has incredible latitude to ignore Congress and spend money.) Again, I think he probably will try to ignore the law - but now, if this bill passes, a law will be on the books that we will be able to try to enforce through the courts and through other means.

3) Like Bowers, the progressive lawmakers and everyone who supports their decision (yours truly included) to support the supplemental should not accept the concept that some will inevitably trot out claiming that voting against the bill and killing it out of supposed "purity" is a more "ethical" or "principled" stand than voting for the bill and solidifying binding legislation to end the war. It's a different tactical outlook, but in no way any less committed to ending the war than those who advocated for the bill's defeat. In the last few weeks, many of the leaders of the antiwar movements - the people doing the hard, unglamorous organizing work, not the people just blowing off contrairian steam - have been attacked by some on the left as supposedly "selling out" for supporting this supplemental. That kind of behavior is unacceptable and discredits those forwarding the argument. The truth is, those antiwar leaders trying to cobble together a legislative coalition could easily make the charge that the contrairians are selling out - selling out a viable way to end the war in order to grandstand for the cameras. But these antiwar leaders aren't making that argument because at least one side of this debate on the left understands that this is a tactical debate over how to end the war, not a substance debate over whether to end the war.

Senior antiwar progressives like Dave Obey who crafted this legislation and other progressives who played hardball and who made the deal last night to help pass this bill should hold their heads high - they will likely go down in history as making the critical difference in taking the first real step to end the war. As a former staffer for the founder of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Bernie Sanders, I can say from firsthand experience that this is a major step forward for progressive power in Congress. These lawmakers displayed toughness and principles, but also shrewdness to get things done. And that kind of political sophistication bodes well for all the other fights coming up in Congress.

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