When Congress convenes in January, two Washington congresswomen will lead Democratic groups that showcase the split between the party’s most liberal and centrist factions.
Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Medina, was elected last week as chair of the centrist New Democrat Coalition. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Seattle, is expected to be named this week as sole chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
How the Jayapal and DelBene-led blocs get along will be a key in determining how effective House Speaker Nancy Pelosi can be in managing a Democratic majority eroded by losses in last month’s election.
Despite President-elect Joe Biden’s victory, House Democrats lost more than 10 seats to Republicans and are expected to start the next Congress with 222 seats — the slimmest majority in decades.
“With the margin the Democrats are going to have being so tight, any grouping of members who want to demand something has more leeway if the speaker is unable to get any support from the other side of the aisle,” said Mark Harkins, senior fellow with the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University.
With the exception of Jayapal, all of Washington’s seven U.S. House Democrats are members of the 104-member New Democrats. (Rep. Adam Smith, D-Bellevue, also is a member of the Progressive Caucus.) The group is philosophically aligned with Biden, who campaigned as a pragmatic dealmaker who’d work across the aisle.
DelBene, a former Microsoft executive, takes over the New Democrat reins from a fellow Washingtonian, Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor.
“We represent what brought us the majority — the expansion of the Democratic Party and Democratic representation in suburban and rural communities,” DelBene said in an interview, pointing to the 2018 midterms in which the party took the majority from Republicans by flipping seats including Washington’s 8th Congressional District.
The group traces its roots to the Democratic Leadership Council, created in the 1980s in reaction to Ronald Reagan’s drubbing of Walter Mondale — which many Democrats blamed on the party’s leftward drift.
In recent years, though, progressives have been ascendant, pushing the party platform to the left. High-profile members such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, D-N.Y., have attracted national attention and excitement among young voters with calls for even more sweeping policies, such as a Green New Deal.
The Progressive Caucus is expected to have more than 100 members in the new Congress — its highest number ever, according to a Jayapal spokesman.
For the past two years, Jayapal, a former immigrant-rights organizer, has co-chaired the Progressive Caucus alongside Wisconsin Congressman Mark Pocan. She is running unopposed to become sole chair, with the vote expected Tuesday.
Jayapal’s rise to sole chair is part of a suite of caucus rule changes aimed at making House progressives more unified and influential.
For example, members will be required to vote the caucus’s preferred position on bills, with few exceptions. They’ll also be required to co-sponsor most of the group’s flagship proposals, such as Medicare for All, a $15 minimum wage and a Green New Deal.
Jayapal said the new restrictions could cause some on-the-fence members to leave. She said that’s not the goal, “but we’re an ideological caucus — we want people to really believe in our ideology, not to just use the label to win an election.”
The New Democrats have a looser structure, with no such rules binding member votes or bill sponsorships, according to Kilmer.
Jayapal said in an interview progressives aren’t there to act as an obstacle for Pelosi or the Biden administration, but will stick to their principles.
“It’s about fighting for people who get forgotten and left behind, because politics has turned into something that just works for the biggest corporations and the wealthiest individuals,” Jayapal said.
“We have to move the boundaries of how people see what’s possible. There’s too often this myopic focus on just trying to do something that’s easy, instead of trying to do something that is right,” she added.
DelBene said House Democrats of all stripes agree in broad terms on immediately tackling climate change and guaranteeing affordable quality health care for all Americans, but those proposals have to be approached pragmatically.
“The only way we get there is to have policies that actually pass,” she said. “That’s the way our system works.”
Kilmer said the New Democrats have more than doubled their membership over the past several years — and have proved effective at passing bills out of the House, even if they have run into blockades in the Republican-controlled Senate.
“Nearly everything that has come off the House floor has had our coalition’s involvement and engagement,” he said, pointing to proposals on campaign finance reform, LGBTQ rights and gun violence.
The Progressive Caucus has at times drawn comparisons to the GOP’s Freedom Caucus, the far-right group that was a thorn in the side for past Republican House leaders Paul Ryan and John Boehner.
While the caucus does not endorse in primaries against incumbents, it has backed progressive contenders in open-seat races.
In Washington this year, the intraparty fight among Democrats was on display in the open-seat race for the Olympia-area 10th Congressional District seat.
The win went to the centrists.
Progressives backed Beth Doglio, a climate organizer and state lawmaker endorsed by Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Jayapal also personally backed Doglio and directed more than $660,000 in spending on the race through two progressive PACs — more than the PACs spent on any other race in the country.
But voters favored Marilyn Strickland, the former Tacoma mayor and former Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce CEO, who defeated Doglio by 14 percentage points, showing that the progressive message dominant in places like Seattle doesn’t necessarily sell elsewhere.
Strickland, who will be Washington’s first Black member of Congress, and the first Korean American congresswoman anywhere in America, will be a member of the New Democrats.
She downplayed the notion of a rift in the party, saying she’s had outreach from Jayapal and other progressives since the election.
Strickland said Democrats share basic values and policy goals on some issues including climate change, health care and COVID-19 relief.
“There is the sloganeering and there is the actual work of governing and legislating,” she said. “This comes back in the end to the desired outcome and not what you call it.”
Indeed, both Jayapal and Strickland said they favor steps like lowering the eligibility age for Medicare — even if they don’t agree on an entirely government-run Medicare-for-All endgame.
The losses by House Democrats in the recent election have produced finger pointing, with some moderates suggesting swing district voters were turned off by the party’s more extreme elements.
DelBene said the New Democrats are analyzing results to see what lessons can be learned. She expressed optimism that House Democrats can work through any differences.
“I think clearly the Democratic caucus is not a monolith. It’s very diverse and that’s our strength,” she said. “I actually think we are set up to have healthy debate. That makes policy better.”
Jayapal said she’s also examining the 2020 election results, and sees encouraging signs for progressives. Florida, which backed Donald Trump, also passed a $15-an-hour minimum wage. Arizona boosted taxes on the rich to fund public schools. Four states legalized marijuana.
“There’s no question in my mind that voters actually just approved a progressive agenda and gave President-elect Joe Biden a mandate, which is to fight for us to deliver a brave agenda,” she said.