Ocasio-Cortez, Allies Move to Court Establishment, Not Fight It

Leading progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had a choice after they won election in 2018 and expanded their ranks in 2020: challenge Democratic leaders from the sidelines, or get in the game.

Now their decision to play by Congress’ rules is giving them clout in a government under unified Democratic control with President Joe Biden.

Members of Representative Ocasio-Cortez’s so-called Squad are taking leadership roles in the House and building experience on Capitol Hill, turning them into not just ideological purists but also strategic legislators. They’re gently pushing a bolder Democratic strategy and meeting regularly with White House aides, bringing liberal dreams like a $15 federal minimum wage and a permanent child tax credit within reach.

Rather than starting a rival group within the Democratic Party, far-left members are joining and taking leadership positions in the 95-member Congressional Progressive Caucus that’s been around for three decades. Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar, also elected in 2018, now leads the CPC’s vote-counting team.

This is a different approach than Tea Party Republicans took after they were elected in 2010 at the midpoint of the first Obama term. Instead, they challenged GOP leadership and spurned the existing conservative Republican Study Committee to start the Freedom Caucus and draw a starker ideological line.

Democrat Mondaire Jones, a newly-elected representative from New York who joined the Progressive Caucus’s vote-counting team, said focusing on gettable policies while building consensus for bolder moves is an explicit strategy.

“Where we can get victories, we should be concentrating our energies in those places,” Jones said in an interview. For example, “lowering the age of Medicare eligibility over getting a floor vote for Medicare for All,” since there isn’t currently enough support in the House to pass the more comprehensive universal health program progressives would like to see.

‘Bold Progressive Change’

The White House is now regularly consulting the CPC, which has been around since 1991 but previously held little power. Biden’s $1.9 trillion pandemic-relief bill included a temporary child tax credit to give families recurring monthly payments, which progressives would like to make permanent. Liberal Democrats were also advocates for direct payments to individuals, and for housing and food assistance.

And they are vowing to continue pushing for the $15 minimum wage that was included in the House legislation but stripped out in the Senate.

Omar said progressives need to take advantage of the slim majorities Democrats have in the House and the Senate, and the CPC will be pushing to influence Biden’s next major bill: a $2.25 trillion economic proposal.

“The upcoming American Jobs Package gives us another opportunity to fight for bold progressive change -- to make sure that the package is as bold as possible on green jobs, immigration, drug prices, health care, and higher education,” she said in an email.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi currently has the majority by just seven votes, which means a handful of like-minded Democrats could sink any bill that doesn’t get Republican support.

The CPC changed its rules after last year’s election to require members to vote as a bloc on issues that are supported by two-thirds of the group at least two-thirds of the time -- similar to the unity pledge that the conservative House Freedom Caucus requires.

Democratic Goodwill

But unlike the Freedom Caucus’ sometimes thorny relations with GOP leadership, the CPC hasn’t revolted against Pelosi. Progressives opted not to withhold their votes against Biden’s virus-related package after some of their priorities were excluded -- an example of their willingness to accept half-measures and push for more in the next bill.

While there are Democratic primaries in which progressives are supporting challengers, some members have traveled to other districts to work with colleagues and appeal to voters, even in traditionally conservative states like Texas and Alabama.

Ocasio-Cortez raised over $5 million for Texas relief efforts after a deadly winter storm in February. She traveled to a Houston food bank and used her Twitter megaphone -- she has over 12.5 million followers -- to praise Democrats who represent the area, building good will within the caucus.

And the attempt to unionize workers at one Amazon Inc. warehouse got support from several members of the progressive caucus. Michigan Democrat Andy Levin, part of Omar’s CPC vote-counting team, traveled to support the effort, along with Nikema Williams, Jamaal Bowman and Cori Bush -- all progressives elected in 2020. They joined Representative Terri Sewell, whose district includes part of Bessemer, Alabama, where the warehouse is located.

This is part of the effort by progressives affiliated with groups like the Justice Democrats to win over voters -- and their congressional delegations -- as a way to bring a “new form of Democratic and progressive representation to Congress in places like Alabama and Texas that are Republican-controlled in so many ways,” according to Waleed Shahid, a Justice Democrats spokesperson.

“This new generation of leaders can still help and serve those communities who are suffering in this country through their bully-pulpit, through the use of their fundraising,” Shahid said in an interview. “You just don’t see that much of that kind of representation from the old guard.”

The outreach will help keep the progressive momentum going, even when former President Donald Trump is no longer a unifying force for Democrats, Jones said.

Trump’s single term “exposed the deficiencies in the ways that the Democratic establishment does and does not advocate for the big structural solutions that the American people understand the need for, and urgently need,” Jones said. The party as a whole, he said, must “make the affirmative case for electing Democrats beyond simply being different from Donald Trump and his Republican allies in the Congress.”

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