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Divisions between progressives and moderates threaten to complicate Democrats' new House majority

Divisions between progressives and moderates threaten to complicate Democrats' new House majority
The U.S. Capitol. (Bill Clark / CQ Roll Call)

House Democrats figured out how to win in districts that narrowly supported President Trump in 2016. Now they have to figure out how to govern there.

That’s one of the key issues facing Democrats as they prepare to take control of the House for the first time in eight years: How do they strike a balance between progressive voters who are anxious to see Democrats stand up to Trump and more moderate voters in formerly Republican districts who decided to pull the lever for Democrats this week?

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Both constituencies will be pivotal to shaping the party’s identity ahead of 2020, when Democrats will be trying to hang onto the House while Trump runs for reelection. Moderates and progressive House members are both trying to position themselves for the coming identity crisis – or power struggle – in a closely divided chamber.

“If we’re going to start out with impeachment and this and this, I mean, the American public is going to say, ‘what did we put in charge?’” said Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), a moderate who has been in office since 2005, even as many other moderate Democrats lost their races.

He’s worried about progressives controlling the agenda and costing Democrats the House by losing seats in more conservative areas.

“I don’t want to be in the majority only four years and then get kicked out,” he said. Some progressive members, “think we can come in, change the world. A lot of it is done incremental, it’s incremental work.”

But progressives want to pursue bold ideas that have grown in popularity while Democrats have been in political exile – such as Medicare for all. They’re equally concerned about not responding to the electorate that they feel delivered them the House.

“If we don’t respond to the electoral wins we’ve had, we won’t have a good 2020,” said Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

The caucus is pushing access to healthcare for all, a $2-trillion infrastructure plan and legislation to crack down on allegedly predatory banks and pharmaceutical companies that charge high prices for prescription drugs.

The caucus is setting up a center to do polling, focus groups and media work to promote progressive priorities – even to their Democratic colleagues.

“We are convinced that the people agree with progressive issues, and if we can just convince those more moderate and conservative members that it really is what their constituents want, then I think we can be successful,” Pocan said before election day.

Democrats don’t have to look far to see the example they want to avoid. Republicans in the House spent much of the past eight years consumed by internal battles as the party’s conservative tea party wing fought with more moderate members.

Ultimately, the House Freedom Caucus, which included many of the tea party legislators, became such a powerful bloc that it defined much of the agenda, driving Speaker John Boehner from office.

Freedom Caucus lawmakers also insisted last year that the House bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act include provisions that would have largely eliminated protections for people with preexisting conditions. In the midterm campaign, Democrats used votes in favor of that legislation to pummel Republican incumbents in districts across the country.

It’s doubtful that any Democratic group would emerge with the same kind of power.

Democratic leaders, including Rep. Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, who is hoping to overcome rank-and-file grumbling to retain the gavel as House speaker, are already trying to prevent that pressure from building. They would rather Democrats focus their attention on Trump, not within their own ranks.

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Pelosi, as well her deputy, Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, have downplayed calls for Trump’s impeachment – they say the Mueller investigation has to be completed – and have pushed bipartisanship and unity while calling for investigations into administration officials.

On election night, Pelosi touted an infrastructure plan – an idea both parties have pushed – as well as legislation addressing pharmaceutical companies and money in politics.

Pocan suggested that he and other progressives are prepared to see some of the potentially more divisive issues being put off for a while, particularly because Trump is unlikely to sign Democratic bills on those topics into law.

“My guess is there’s just going to be a lot of pent-up work that has to happen that we’re all going to be able to agree on,” he said.

At least 20 Democrats endorsed by the Progressive Caucus won their races, according to the caucus, with a few more races still uncalled.

But some Democrats who ran in Trump districts performed well on election day too. Democrats won in 19 districts that Trump carried in 2016, and they hung on to nine of their 12 incumbents running in districts Trump carried, according to data compiled by the Cook Political Report. Those figures could change as final votes are counted in uncalled races.

Republicans were able to flip three seats Trump won that were previously held by Democrats, including two in Minnesota and one in Pennsylvania, according to Geoffrey Skelley at the FiveThirtyEight website.

The reality that any legislation that gets through the House would also have to get through the GOP-controlled Senate and past Trump’s veto pen will constrain Democrats of all stripes.

Equally important to the party’s 2020 ambitions will be so-called messaging bills: legislation that expresses what the party would do if it fully controlled Congress and the White House.

If Democrats want to try to enact bipartisan legislation, they will have to navigate working with Republicans on bills while investigating the president – the latter being a goal of Democrats across the spectrum.

“I don’t believe that Congress exercising its oversight role and its ability to work with the president is mutually exclusive,” said Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.), a member of the moderate Blue Dog Coalition, which is poised to gain at least six new members.

Outside groups will also be a factor in the Democratic caucus, as they have been for the Republicans.

Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a liberal group, argues that the best way to help Democrats in red or purple districts is to vote on bold ideas, not “the lowest common denominator agreement between the two parties.”

Green argues that House Democrats can send public signals about those ideas while getting more centrist legislation enacted. Democrats could vote to allow anyone to buy into Medicare, for example, which is very unlikely to get through the GOP Senate, while also passing a more modest bill to repair the Affordable Care Act, which has a chance of getting bipartisan support.

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House Democrats’ identity could very well be shaped by the fact that the majority will be made up largely of legislative neophytes. Most of the incoming lawmakers are first-time politicians. And more than half of the new Democratic caucus has never served in the majority.

Veteran lawmakers welcome the newcomers’ energy but say it won’t define House Democrats, given that committee chairmen and members of the leadership will have control of the agenda.

“There will be a lot of sound. We’ll see how much fury,” said Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.). “Will it satiate or satisfy everybody’s appetite for what they want to do? Of course not. But the consensus of the caucus has to come to bear on it also.”

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