For years, progressives have floated the idea of acting as a bloc and using their power to shape the Democratic agenda, a tactic levied by several of the most influential congressional caucuses.
On Thursday, they finally did: Progressives stood by a threat they issued this summer, when they promised to vote against the bipartisan infrastructure bill if it was considered in the House without a concurrent vote on a much larger reconciliation bill (which contains a vast investment in social programs and measures to address climate change). Effectively, they argued, the infrastructure bill wouldn’t pass unless a broader $3.5 trillion package did first.
By holding their ground and pursuing a course of action that could derail both bills, progressives hope to force moderates in their own party to offer some type of commitment on the reconciliation measure.
More than half the members of the 96-person Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) maintained their intention to vote down the infrastructure bill on Thursday, thereby guaranteeing its failure. That commitment led House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to delay a planned vote, since Congress still hasn’t agreed on what the reconciliation package should include.
This move marks a huge shift in the way the CPC has used its power and what it has asked of its members. Prominent progressives have long argued that if even a subset of the caucus stayed united, it could influence major legislation and make ambitious policy demands — modeling themselves after methods used by groups such as the conservative Freedom Caucus and the moderate Blue Dog Coalition.
To get to that point, House progressives have had to think differently about congressional power as well as their own caucus. “It was a really important social club, for people with shared values to come together. But there wasn’t really any infrastructure built to support the organizing work,” CPC Chair Pramila Jayapal told Vox.
This thinking has been pushed by a new guard in the progressive caucus as well. “The thing that gives the caucus power is that you can operate as a bloc vote in order to get things done,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) told Jacobin magazine in 2018.
Such coordination, though, has often proved elusive for the CPC.
Prior to this term, there have been scattered efforts by the group to work as a unit but few actual requirements of its members. Formal whip operations were rare, and the caucus had no rules governing how members needed to vote. This lack of structure coupled with the ideological diversity within the progressive caucus diluted both its cohesion and power.
In the last year, however, the caucus has passed new rules requiring members to vote with the bloc in certain situations, including the expectation that members support a position when two-thirds of the caucus agrees on it. The CPC also outlined key priorities for a reconciliation bill, such as lowering prescription drug prices and funding child care subsidies. Further, the caucus consolidated leadership behind one chair so that the group can respond more quickly and effectively in negotiations.
This change in strategy has been central to the way progressives have approached infrastructure talks. By acting as a bloc, the caucus has been able to make substantive demands — sometimes in the form of direct threats — and pressure moderate senators like Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) to bring a concrete reconciliation offer to the table. Thus far, Manchin has said he would support a $1.5 trillion package, while Sinema has yet to publicly draw a red line.(While the number of progressives threatening to vote against the infrastructure bill on Thursday didn’t appear to reach the group’s two-thirds threshold, the bloc is still one of the largest the caucus has been able to rally in recent memory.)
Whether the CPC can secure simultaneous votes on the two bills — and whether Manchin and Sinema bend to additional pressure and back more ambitious legislation — remains to be seen. There’s the possibility, for instance, that moderates walk away altogether, meaning that neither the infrastructure bill nor the budget reconciliation package get passed.
Despite these risks, progressives’ confidence in their gambit underscores a new willingness to stand by their position, and use their weight, as real stakes hang in the balance.
“Try us,” Jayapal told reporters earlier in September. “Now, we’re ready,” she emphasized to Vox ahead of Thursday’s showdown.
The Congressional Progressive Caucus is working to overcome past divisions
Over the past year, progressive members of Congress have strategized about how the caucus could more effectively leverage its power while Democrats control both chambers and the White House.
Because Democrats have such a narrow majority in both the House and the Senate, any faction, however small, can derail key votes and lobby for their legislative priorities. During the bipartisan infrastructure negotiations, these small margins gave progressives leverage to reschedule a vote on the bill.
In the past, there have been a few key barriers to progressives using their caucus to execute credible threats. First, there’s the size and wide-ranging ideological positions of the group, an issue it’s still navigating. The CPC has included lawmakers like Ocasio-Cortez who skew further to the left, as well as Democrats who’ve taken more establishment positions, such as Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), who has long accepted contributions from corporate donors, a strategy rejected by some members of the caucus, who rely on small-dollar fundraising. In some cases, members didn’t display a clear dedication to its core goals. As a result, there hasn’t necessarily been unified stances on measures including contentious votes on immigration and foreign policy.
“It was a large caucus, and it was not very cohesive. And a lot of the members of the caucus were, frankly, not all that progressive,” said former Rep. Brad Miller (D-NC) of his time in the group prior to retiring from Congress in 2013.
As Jayapal noted, the group didn’t have many ways of identifying members’ policy stances or compelling them to work together.Previously, the caucus offered recommendations to members on key votes, but it didn’t have any formal procedures in place to urge them to vote in a certain way.
Then there’s the dynamics of congressional legislation. In the past, progressives have typically advocated for more expansive legislation, but they’ve also been willing to cave when needed for Democratic priorities to advance. In the case of the Affordable Care Act, for instance, progressives advocated for a public option but ultimately agreed to support a version of the bill without one to get something done.
“There’s a long history of progressive Democrats saying they will do a thing and it petering out,” said University of Chicago political scientist Ruth Bloch Rubin. “This may be the first time that Democrats are taking their threats more seriously.”
Caucus threats are nothing new in Congress, of course, but progressives have historically hesitated to follow through. The Freedom Caucus, a conservative group, has leveraged its strength as a bloc to push Republican bills to the right, including on measures addressing border security and repealing the ACA. But it’s also been willing to sink GOP bills entirely, which has helped it wield power.
Now, progressives have started taking steps toward establishing similar influence.
Progressives’ conscious efforts to expand their power
Last fall, the CPC approved a new rules package intended to strengthen its ability to operate as a bloc. It required members to attend a number of meetings, respond to whip counts on key votes, and vote together in certain situations, including when two-thirds of the caucus share the same position on an issue, the Intercept reported. Those who don’t vote with the bloc at least two-thirds of the time could face probation or expulsion.
While some of these reforms, including meeting attendance, seem like straightforward requirements, they speak to both the limited engagement the caucus has seen in the past and the willingness of some people to use their membership for clout. Members’ responses to whip counts during infrastructure negotiations, for example, have been key to understanding whether the CPC has the votes needed to make serious threats on the bill.
Those rules emulate practices utilized by the conservative Freedom Caucus and the moderate Blue Dog Democrats. If 80 percent of Freedom Caucus members take the same position, for instance, that approach is binding for everyone else.
At the same time, the ranks of the CPC have moved further to left, with lawmakers like Reps. Cori Bush (D-MO), Jamaal Bowman (D-NY), and Mondaire Jones (D-NY) winning their primaries in 2020.
The CPC’s latest actions also build on the organizing work of past leaders including Reps. Keith Ellison (D-MN) and Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), who oversaw a progressive push in 2015 to oppose legislation expediting approval of President Barack Obama’s trade deals.
In recent years, progressives have leaned further into this power, threatening to withhold votes on a 2019 prescription drug bill pushed by House Democrats. In doing so, they were able to secure changes to the legislation, doubling the amount of drugs covered by the legislation. Additionally, House progressives were among those who successfully lobbied for more expansive stimulus checks in President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan after some moderate Democrats attempted to narrow eligibility for the payments even further.
“There have been a lot of mini-flexes that have built this muscle,” said Mary Small, the legislative director for Indivisible, a progressive advocacy group.
Progressives’ unity on reconciliation comes after months of internal organizing. In April, the CPC agreed on five key policy priorities for Biden’s American Jobs Plan — a broad package that’s since been split into two bills — after surveying its members. These priorities include lowering prescription drug prices; creating a pathway to citizenship for DACA recipients and certain other immigrants; investments in affordable housing, child care subsidies, and paid family leave; and support for climate jobs programs.
The potential of a progressive bloc
The big question now is whether progressives’ threats will ultimately be effective.
Critics of the CPC’s strategy counter that progressives’ tactics could mean that neither the bipartisan infrastructure bill nor the larger social spending package will pass, leaving Democrats nothing to show for their months of work.
Some political experts, however, consider this scenario unlikely, arguing that tying both infrastructure bills together gives moderates and progressives alike an incentive to work together. Because moderates want to advance an infrastructure bill that they can take back to their constituents — and progressives are similarly committed to the reconciliation measure — the two party factions have real motivations to bargain.
“It gives the progressives more power because the moderates want something,” said Alison Craig, an assistant government professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “It’s not just a matter of moderates being opposed, it’s a matter of them wanting something.”
The infrastructure debate also offers a glimpse into the type of influence a united progressive bloc can wield. Jayapal said her caucus is open to using similar tactics moving forward.
“I don’t think when we passed those rules reforms and talked about collective power, that that was intended for one event,” she told Vox. “We can do that on multiple things.”
But whether progressives can replicate these maneuvers in future policy fights remains an open question. The reconciliation measure is a uniquely prominent Democratic agenda item, one that is popular with the public and has the backing of the White House. Biden, after all, is personally invested in making sure the legislation doesn’t fail.
And despite the broad-based agreement the caucus has built on its care economy and climate priorities, its members often still split on other issues. In some cases, the new unity can go only so far: A much smaller subset of lawmakers in “the Squad” voted down funding for the Capitol Police and Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, for example. Not “every voting dimension” enjoys the same level of cohesion, said Josh Huder, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute.
Progressives could face a different dynamic, for instance, if they didn’t have some White House support for their position or if they disagree on legislation. Ultimately, holding the line would be tougher in both of those scenarios.
“If they get a win from this, then they will be emboldened by that. But they still need the circumstances to align,” UT Austin’s Craig said.