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Power Struggle: Inside The Battle For The Soul Of The Democratic Party


First Posted: 06/08/10 06:12 AM ET Updated: 05/25/11 05:05 PM ET

Raúl Grijalva is sitting quietly with a few of his staffers at one end of the bar, a bottle of Bud and a shot of whiskey in front of him, while his fellow Democratic members of the House of Representatives roar in celebration at the other end. It's 1 a.m. Less than two hours earlier, after a 14-month battle, Congress approved comprehensive health care reform.

Joe Crowley, ascendant leader of the New Democrat Coalition, stands behind the bar, passing out beers to his colleagues -- Bart Stupak, Melissa Bean, Steve Driehaus, John Larson. Crowley owns the place, his six-foot-four frame and Tyrannosaurus head towering over the crush of members, staffers, reporters and regulars.

Grijalva is a regular. So much so that for weeks, a cartoon caricature of him hung on a wall by the front door: a shirtless Grijalva, at the beach, admiring a sandcastle he has built with Lynn Woolsey and Debbie Wasserman Schultz. None of them see the menacing gang of senators marching their way. In the unsubtle tradition of political cartoons, the sandcastle spells out PUBLIC OPTION. The cartoon, fittingly, has been taken down before tonight. "We're commiserating and celebrating," says Grijalva, whose mood is leaning heavily toward the former.

The Senate hooligans depicted in the cartoon had co-conspirators. Democrats in both chambers let the sand castle get smashed, each blaming the other. The Democrats celebrating their victory in the bar tonight are of a decidedly conservative variety, the result of a conscious strategy to move the party to the right in order to take back the House and pad the majority. They may be the ones partying, but it's Grijalva and his progressive allies who are picking up the tab.

Since 1995, members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus have collectively given $6.3 million directly to members of the Blue Dog and New Democrat coalitions, according to an analysis by the Huffington Post of data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. That's not an overwhelming sum when the average winning campaign nowadays costs more than $1 million, but it represents one-sixth of all giving from one faction within the party to another. It doesn't include the millions that progressives have given to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee -- rank-and-file members are supposed to cough up $150,000 every two years (though many miss that mark), committee chairmen $250,000 and up. The DCCC turns around and funnels that money to conservative Democrats in close races. Add to that the millions spent by organized labor and outside groups such as, and it's clear that progressive donors have become major financial benefactors of the conservative Democrats who battled to undermine their agenda. "That tension exists a lot," George Miller says about the party's demand that progressives fund their intramural rivals. "That tension exists a lot. And it's real."

Democrats play it too safe, says Grijalva. "When I give my dues to the DCCC, or when you contribute to it, you have no distinction as to where your money is going to go. And it goes to front-liners and usually Blue Dogs and [they] usually vote against our issues. And that's a real frustration. And usually, if there's a progressive running, it's the last consideration in terms of support," he says.

The Blue Dog and New Democrat coalitions emerged in the 1990s in the wake of the successful Republican campaign to take control of Congress, and have continuously expanded their membership ever since. The prototypical Blue Dog comes from a socially conservative, rural district; New Democrats are more likely to represent pro-choice bankers from the suburbs. Both groups offer automatic protection against accusations that their members are too liberal.

The money flows almost entirely in one direction: The conservative coalitions have given progressives less than $600,000. While Blue Dogs and New Democrats have each given their fellow travelers $2.4 million in the past 15 years, members of the much larger progressive caucus have helped each other to the tune of just $1.3 million.

Progressives have received very little return on their investment when it comes to important votes. The 34 Democrats who voted against the health care reform bill in March have collectively received $2.1 million from progressive members. More than half of that sum came in the past five years.

Grijalva is piqued that the caucus his fellow progressives helped create has now launched a pep rally in his low-key Tune Inn, which he discovered when he arrived in 2003 after searching for a bar stool safely outside the orbit of Washington's power center. His colleagues don't seem to notice the host's distress. Leaving the bar to shouts of "Crow-ley! Crow-ley!", the Queens congressman out of central casting barely acknowledges Grijalva. Other members give him cursory nods. He stays until after the lights come on -- last call. As the remaining reporters file out, Grijalva says he will begin the fight again tomorrow.

He'll have company. Organized labor, and progressive members of Congress are increasingly breaking from the orbit of the White House and the Democratic establishment, beginning to take on the administration, build an independent infrastructure and back progressive primary challengers. Unions are working to groom progressive candidates in small, local races and, inside Congress, the progressive caucus -- after years of being treated like the stepchild of the House -- has the potential leadership and organizing vision in place to be ready the next time the nation clamors for a step forward and, in the meantime, to finish what was started on March 21, 2010.

Click on the page numbers below to continue reading this story, or view the single-page or printer-friendly versions. For a slideshow showing key highlights from this story, click here. Laura Bassett and Julian Hattem contributed reporting. This is the second in an ongoing series on how Congress works; in December, HuffPost documented financial reform's path through the House.

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