The White House expressed surprise last week that the "left of the left" had clung so forcefully to the public insurance option as a must-have element of health care reform. Some old hands in the administration were more likely surprised by the simple fact that, at this late stage, they still have to deal with progressives in Congress.
And who can blame them?
"We're the group that speaks to the righteousness of an issue, [but] inevitably the decisions about how that issue's going to be addressed are conducted somewhere else," said Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), describing the traditional fecklessness of progressives in Congress. "The fact that we have stuck to our guns about the public option has surprised people."
A majority of the 81 Congressional Progressive Caucus members of the House have vowed to oppose any health care bill that does not include a "robust public option." That threat has kept it alive. With 256 seats in the House and 218 needed to pass a bill, Democrats simply can't move health care reform on their own without progressive caucus support.
The question facing the White House and congressional leadership: Just how serious are they? Interviews with CPC leaders and a look at the group's behavior suggest that leadership would be well advised to consider the threat real.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has repeatedly acknowledged the reality that the progressives can block the bill. In June, she was asked by HuffPost if she would allow health care reform without a public option to pass the House.
"It's not a question of allow. It wouldn't have the votes," she said. When the White House went squishy last week on the public option ("not essential"/"one sliver"/"a piece"), Pelosi returned to the basic calculus. "There's no way I can pass a bill in the House of Representatives without a public option," she said.
The strong House stand promises an end to the lower chamber's traditional role of Senate spectator - where the wise "centrists" in the august body craft compromise legislation and present it to the House as a fait accomplis.
Until recently, reporters on Capitol Hill almost never found themselves typing the words "Congressional Progressive Caucus."
Raúl Grijalva's honed his politics in the Arizona desert, where he organized on behalf of the creation of community health centers.
"A good community organizer develops a high degree of codependency," said Grijalva. "You're codependent on the people you're working with. You're codependent on other organizations to help you. You're codependent on other members of the leadership team to do their part and so you learn to work both in the background and in front."
In March, Grijalva did something unusual for the progressive caucus: he began organizing. Caucus leadership sent a questionnaire asking members if they would be willing to oppose any health care bill that didn't include a public option. A majority said they would.
Attendance at caucus meetings - which had dipped to just a handful of members - began rising as the group hashed out what message to deliver to House leadership.
"I really felt that we needed to be righteous about the things that we believe in, but we also needed to practice the craft a little better," said Grijalva. "As a bloc we were getting beaten to the punch all the time."
If the CPC is the conscience of the Democratic Party, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) has long been the conscience of the CPC. The only member to vote against using force against Afghanistan after 9/11, Lee has taken stand after losing stand on behalf of the dispossessed and disenfranchised. She stepped down as progressive caucus co-chair - where she had served alongside outspoken progressive Lynne Woolsey (D-Calif.) -- at the end of last year to take the helm of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Grijalva and sophomore Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) ran to fill Lee's spot. Both argued that the caucus needed to become relevant by taking strong and unified positions, a model that the Blue Dog Coalition had perfected since it formed in 1995.
"Quite frankly, we got motivated because there were other caucuses in the Democratic caucus who seem to get disproportionate attention based on their numbers," said Ellison. The Blue Dogs only number 51. "And we're like, wait a minute, we've got 80-plus members. How can we be ignored?"
Ellison's stature has risen quickly in House, where his sharp cross-examination of Bush administration officials' testimony and eloquence on the House floor has been quickly noticed.
Woolsey and Grijalva were elected co-chairs, with Ellison finishing third. "On an individual basis, progressive caucus members have always been a force within the caucus," said Ellison. "The difference here is how we have coalesced and hung together."
Like any institutional change, this one wasn't easy. "There was a comfort zone in being, 'Okay, we're going to do our alternative budget and that was the whole effort for the whole year. Wonderful, but at the end of the day, what?" said one member, who spoke not for attribution so as not to offend caucus members who are deeply invested in creating the progressive's alternative budget - an exercise that is almost completely ignored by the media and has no impact on the actual budget.
"The change to this attitude wasn't easy internally within the caucus," said the member.
For Woolsey, it's the issue that allows the caucus to stand unified. "It's the issue. We agree on this," she said. "We have never had the luxury of saying, 'Either go with us, or we'll go with the Republicans. We don't believe what the Republicans stand for at all. So it's been more difficult when Bush ran the White House. Nor have we had the majority of the progressives drawing a line in the sand as they are now."
Ilyse Hogue of MoveOn.org said that the ability of the progressives to identify the public option as the element to organize around has made their tough stand possible. "One of the things that we have typically seen from progressive members is a willingness to fight, but to fight on 18 fronts," she said. "They're unified around the public option. A single ask gives them legislative power."
In April, the message was delivered to leadership, which asked what elements of a public option must be included. Again, the progressives did something unusual: they turned to outside groups for help.
"Members of the progressive caucus began to hire people that were part of the progressive movement," said Ellison. "I got to congress in 2007. If you look at the level of connection between where we were when I got there and where we are now, I'm pretty hopeful about the prospects for a progressive future."
Ellison cited Rep. Alan Grayson's (D-Fla.) hiring of prominent blogger Matt Stoller. "He brings all of his perspective and his technical expertise with him," said Ellison.
The caucus also brought on Darcy Burner to help with outreach to progressive groups. Burner had twice run for Congress and is a hero of the Netroots community of bloggers and activists. She arranged for Jacob Hacker, the intellectual architect of the public option, and Diane Archer co-president of the Health Care for All Project, which is run by the Institute for America's Future, to brief the caucus.
With their help, the CPC developed a list of elements of a public option that must be included - and fit it all on one page, another feat.
On June 23rd, about two weeks after Pelosi said that health care reform wouldn't have the votes without a public option, the blog FiretDogLake.com began its own whip count of progressive members to put them on the record.
In July, an internal whip count was leaked to DailyKos that listed some 50 names of members who had taken the pledge to oppose a health care bill that didn't include a public option. Rep. Diane Watson (D-Calif.) is in charge of keeping the whip count for the CPC. Her spokeswoman, Dorinda White, confirmed to HuffPost that the list was accurate and had since only grown longer. FireDogLake, however, was unable to get the 50 members to confirm their position on the record, calling their commitment into question.
"We figured it was pretty unlikely they'd stand up for it in conference if they wouldn't even confirm it publicly," said FireDogLake founder Jane Hamsher.
The first test came in the Energy and Commerce Committee, where Blue Dogs held up a final vote in an effort to wrangle concessions from Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), himself a progressive caucus member.
On July 29, after days of delay, Waxman reached a deal to move the bill through the committee that would decouple the public option from Medicare's reimbursement rates - an element progressives consider crucial in getting the public plan on its feet.
Woolsey called the deal unacceptable. That evening 30 caucus members showed up for a meeting and decided to circulate a letter opposing the agreement and reiterating their stand. The next day, the letter was out, with 57 signatures (it would grow to 60 in a few days) - warp speed for the slow-moving CPC.
The caucus also reached out to MoveOn.org, which notified its members of the letter and encouraged folks to go to the press conference announcing it. "We let [our members] know there were people standing up for them," said MoveOn's Ilyse Hogue. "Looking from the outside in, I'm definitely seeing an increased understanding of the power progressives can wield on the inside working in coordination with outside progressive forces."
"There are certainly some of us who have come from those outside groups and have made a point in increasing communication with the outside groups," said Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.), a caucus vice-chair who previously worked for Public Citizen and The Arca Foundation, among others.
Three House committees have passed health care bills, which will be merged into one. Progressives are now pushing to strip the Energy and Commerce deal with Blue Dogs from the final package. Enough Blue Dogs back the public option that Democrats have enough votes to pass it on the House floor.
That's what Pelosi wants. "She told us," said Ellison. "'I myself am not in favor of a plan without a public option, so you guys we consider allies in this thing."
"I don't care what their deal was in Energy and Commerce," said Grijalva. "It's not binding on us and the difference between the progressive caucus and the Blue Dogs is that we deliver votes. They don't."
The conventional wisdom says that the public option will be removed in conference committee negotiations between the House and the Senate, perhaps replaced by a cooperative model. Progressives have reiterated in a letter signed by 60 members that their pledge includes the vote on the final conference package.
"We've done our compromising and we're not compromising any more. We've got our shot. Let somebody else show some flexibility now," said Ellison.
Hamsher and other bloggers are working to put the members' commitment on the record so that they can be rewarded if they follow through and punished if they don't.
"The key is carrots and not just sticks," said DailyKos contributing editor Joan McCarter, who broke the original whip list. "I am pleased to see them have this much backbone and probably like everyone else a little uncertain they can keep it up. But they're committed now."
The bloggers, with the help of MoveOn, launched a fundraising effort to thank the members who had taken the pledge. In just a few days, it raised more than $400,000 from nearly 7,000 donors.
"I think it's amazing," said Edwards. "I have been buoyed by the outpouring of support from outside groups."
Now that the progressives have dug in, they risk being rolled back into the wilderness if they cave. If they succeed in driving the bill left, however, they'll firmly establish their power in Congress.
Grijalva said he and others been eying the health care fight as a chance to establish the authority of caucus since the beginning of the year. "People have understood that this was not only a value statement that we had to stick to, but it was also, to put it in a really blunt sense, an opportunity to show that the caucus was going to be a real player in how policies get shaped and that's what we're trying to do," he said.
If they don't, watch out. "The progressives aren't actually bluffing," said Darcy Burner. But, she added, "If the House gets rolled, that sets a problematic precedent."
Individual members could be targeted. "Nobody ever talks about primarying progressives, but I could see it this time around," said McCarter. Hamsher said she would "absolutely" support primary challenges of progressives who broke their pledges.
As the prospect of a bipartisan bill fades, progressives hope their hand will be increasingly strengthened as Obama realizes where his allies are. "The White House does not know how to use the progressive community. They see us as kind of money in the kitty already," said Ellison. "The White House should be saying to the Blue Dogs and to the right wing, 'I cannot give you what you want because I have a progressive community that we're accountable to.'"
The key, said Ellison, is to keep that community organized. "We've got to get comfortable being in power and realize that power is not a bad thing," he said.
But even Edwards hedged a bit when asked by HuffPost if she was firm in her commitment to oppose a bill that comes out of conference without a public option.
"Let me just say this," she said. "I believe that there is widespread support for the public option, so I want to discuss how we get from the politics of where we are right now to achieving the thing that we know is widely supported in the Democratic caucus and also widely supported around the country. And I don't think you do that unless you get a bill out of the House of Representatives that has a solid public option in it, because you don't bargain the opposite direction in the Senate. So we need to make sure we have the strongest bill possible out of the House of Representatives. I know that there's support for the public option and I fully expect that to be a part of the bill that we pass out of the House. And that in itself will be the leverage to achieve it in the final product."
Ryan Grim is the author of This Is Your Country On Drugs: The Secret History of Getting High in America
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