Josh Gottheimer never had a doubt in his mind. At the end of August, the New Jersey Democrat and a gang of House members that dubbed themselves “the unbreakable nine” used their leverage to force Speaker Nancy Pelosi to schedule a vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill on September 27. The group of conservative Democrats hoped to cleave it off from the broader reconciliation package, which includes steep tax hikes on the rich and robust social spending.
The goal was to pass the infrastructure bill, and then be able to train their fire on the bigger bill. Free the hostage, then blow up the insurgents.
Following Pelosi’s concession, Gottheimer and some of his allies huddled with donors to and leaders of the dark-money group No Labels, which finances their campaigns and was instrumental in organizing the opposition. “You should feel so proud, I can’t explain to you, this is the culmination of all your work. This would not have happened but for what you built,” Gottheimer told them, according to a recording of the conversation obtained by The Intercept. “It just wouldn’t have happened — hard stop. You should just feel so proud. This is your win as much as it is my win.”
Rep. Kurt Schrader, former chair of the right wing Blue Dog Coalition, celebrated the victory’s ability to let them focus next on fighting the reconciliation package, which he told the group he opposed. “Let’s deal with the reconciliation later. Let’s pass that infrastructure package right now, and don’t get your hopes up that we’re going to spend trillions more of our kids’ and grandkids’ money that we don’t really have at this point,” Schrader said.
But House progressives quickly responded, vowing to block the bill -- to hold the line -- if it came to the floor without the broader spending bill. Gottheimer remained confident over the next several weeks, saying privately he was sure progressives would fold. On September 27, it was clear there weren’t enough votes to pass the bill, and Pelosi pulled it from the floor, rescheduling it for a September 30 showdown.
That’s the topic of this week’s Deconstructed podcast, featuring an interview with Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, who played an unsung role in last week’s showdown.
On CNN Thursday, Gottheimer gave the bill a “1,000 percent” chance of being passed that day. He never got close, and the bill was pulled again, leaving Gottheimer to meekly argue that the House had not been technically adjourned. Friday would still be the same “legislative day,” he tweeted, and negotiations were ongoing and he was grabbing Red Bull and Gatorade and...hey, where’s everybody going?
By Friday evening, pumped full of Red Bull, he was publicly attacking Pelosi.
The journey of the Congressional Progressive Caucus from punchline to counterpuncher involved decades in the wilderness, followed by a rapid consolidation of power that took Congress by surprise this week. (I wrote a book about this history, if you missed it.)
The roots stretch back to the 2009 and 2010 fight over the Affordable Care Act, when an outmatched CPC was forced to swallow a bill that fell short of red lines they had drawn. More than 50 members of the caucus had signed a letter vowing not to support any health care reform bill that didn’t include a “robust public option,” but all of them did just that in the end.
Two things were clear: the House and Senate needed Democrats who were more progressive, and those progressives needed to be better organized. A few new organizations popped up in an effort to bring that into being. One called itself the Progressive Change Campaign Committee — its abbreviation a troll of the DCCC, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which it was designed to counterbalance. Separately, then-bloggers Jane Hamsher and Glenn Greenwald organized a political action committee to back progressive challengers in primaries.
After the midterm wipeout of 2010, many of the electoral fights took place with little media coverage. Two of the first progressive battles of the new era came in 2012, when a coalition of groups, including the PCCC, intervened in open primaries in San Diego and New Mexico.
In San Diego, progressives backed Lori Saldaña over right-wing businessman Scott Peters. In New Mexico, they were for Eric Griego against the conservative Michelle Lujan Grisham. They lost both narrowly, and the losses reverberated. Earlier this month, Peters cast one of three votes against a committee measure to allow Medicare to negotiate the price of prescription drugs. Lujan Grisham has become governor of New Mexico, where she battles progressives from her statewide perch.
But, thanks in significant part to the organizing around Griego’s campaign, which evolved into a statewide effort, Rep. Deb Haaland ran for Lujan Grisham’s vacant seat and won as a progressive. When she was elevated to interior secretary earlier this year, the primary campaign wasn’t left versus center or left versus right, but who was the most progressive. Even in a race dominated by party insiders, it went to Melanie Ann Stansbury.
This week, the newly sworn-in Rep. Stansbury publicly vowed she would hold the line with the progressive caucus, and block the bipartisan bill unless both moved together. Adding rank-and-file members like Stansbury to their public list in some ways was more valuable than compiling a list of the usual suspects, showing Pelosi the opposition wasn’t just deep, it was broad.
Throughout the 2010s, the ability of Democrats to raise small dollars gradually expanded, punctuated and driven forward by the Senate campaign of Elizabeth Warren in 2012 and then the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign of 2016. Though he fell short, he showed that there was a major base of support for his democratic socialist agenda, in terms of both people and money. That same year, Pramila Jayapal, an antiwar organizer from Washington state whose inspiration to enter electoral politics was Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., was elected to Congress.
She and Rep. Mark Pocan of Wisconsin set about transforming the progressive caucus from what former co-chair Raúl Grijalva had described as a “Noam Chomsky book reading club” into a cohesive unit capable of wielding influence. The caucus set an internal agenda, but didn’t have any requirements for joining. In 2018, when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez upset New York City Rep. Joe Crowley, her suggestion of a “sub-caucus” that could be more nimble as a bloc was seen internally as both a hopeful sign and something of a challenge. If the caucus didn’t get itself organized, it would be supplanted by something else.
During the next Congress, progressives withheld their votes in committee in a fight to strengthen HR3, the bill that allows Medicare to negotiate drug prices. Donald Trump was president, so little that the House did was going to become law, but it was a preseason win of sorts that showed the tactic could work. Ahead of this Congress, the CPC tightened its ideological requirements for membership and shifted to a single chair to become more nimble. In early 2021, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer used CPC intransigence to persuade Sen. Joe Manchin not to push too hard for deep cuts to unemployment benefits, telling him progressives would take the American Rescue Plan down in the House if he did. At the same time, Jayapal shied away from a showdown over the $15 minimum wage after only 42 Democrats voted to override the parliamentarian.
Over the summer, the number of progressives willing to hold the line on the infrastructure bill continued growing, particularly as the holdout senators refused to even lay out what they were for and against. But it wasn’t a certainty until this week that the progressive bloc could hold strong. Ocasio-Cortez said she doesn’t blame Gottheimer for miscalculating.
“Honestly I see why he was so certain, CPC never stood up like this until this week,” she said. “Until this week, the most we could scrounge together for a showdown was like 14 members.”
Relatedly, I want to make a delicate point that isn’t intended as an I-told-you-so, even if it comes off that way. Back in December, there was a big online debate over whether the Squad should use the leverage it had over the vote for Speaker of the House to demand a vote on Medicare for All on the House floor. Without rehashing the whole thing, I argued that was a bad idea, for a variety of reasons, significantly among them that the vote would go down in flames, and the headline that Medicare for All lost 315-120 or so wasn’t worth picking a prolonged fight with not just the incoming Speaker but the entire House Democratic caucus, which had already voted to elect Pelosi and was ready to move on the next day to trying to win the Georgia Senate races. Others passionately disagreed, and wanted to have that fight at that moment.
Some of the advocates of that play, which they called #ForceTheVote, are citing the progressive ability to hold the line last week as evidence their tactic was the right one. But a closer look at it shows the opposite. It was actually Gottheimer who deployed a version of their strategy. He and 8 colleagues held up the entire Democratic caucus for days and challenged the Speaker, and in the end won the concession of a floor vote. They forced the vote. Except nothing they did changed the underlying structural conditions that had already made their position weak. So when the moment for the vote they had forced came, they were smashed. And now Gottheimer and his gang have been badly weakened in the House. The progressive wing, meanwhile, was able to successfully use their leverage because they had a gameplan, numbers on their side, and an achievable end goal. I don’t say this to try to dunk on any of the people I was arguing with last year, but only to help make the position they thought was indefensible a bit more understandable. Sometimes, if you do it poorly at the wrong time, using your leverage can backfire. Just ask Josh Gottheimer.