Democratic moderates seize the momentum from progressives

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer laid down a marker in his speech last weekend to the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference.

“By the way, there are 62 freshman Democrats,” the Maryland congressman, departing from his prepared text, said to the room of pro-Israel activists. “Do you hear me? Sixty-two, not three.”

The adlib was a signal that Democratic leadership, just a few months in power, were making a change.

The trio of freshmen Hoyer was apparently referring to are Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar, who as much as anyone have used their social media savvy to tap into progressive voter enthusiasm, and push lofty — and perhaps unattainable — policy goals: guaranteeing everyone has health insurance and a job, overhauling the economy to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions, making college tuition free, and of course, impeaching President Donald Trump.

But as much as the young progressives have defined the early stage of the current House majority, it’s clear the momentum has shifted as party leaders try to steer Democrats back toward the center.

Recent developments have revealed the limits of the star power of Ocasio-Cortez and company. Republicans are ridiculing the Green New Deal and casting the Democrats as socialists. Rather than adopting sweeping reforms, House Democratic leaders are putting forward bills that make incremental changes to health care and push for the more modest goals of the Paris Climate Accords. And the idea of impeaching the President is all but dead at this point. The leading voice on impeachment, Tlaib, got just one co-sponsor for her renewed resolution.

If that wasn’t a clear enough signal, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi effectively buried the notion of impeachment in recent comments. “I’ve made it really clear on impeachment,” Pelosi told CNN Wednesday. “Everybody can do whatever they want to do but that’s not a place where we are right now.”

The conclusion of the Mueller investigation presents a challenge for those Democrats who counted on it bringing down Trump. But it’s also a chance for the caucus’ moderates to refocus the conversation in Washington on a more center-left policy agenda. That certainly lacks the verve and appeal of the revolutionary changes put forth by the progressives, but it may be more doable and some would argue is more in keeping with the ballast of the party.

A fight for the future of the party

“I think the numbers speak loudly,” said freshman Rep. Mikie Sherrill, a self-described moderate from New Jersey. “I think leadership knows where the power in the party is at.”

Sherrill is one of the 43 Democrats who flipped a Republican-held seat in 2018. She’s also a part of the moderate New Democrat Coalition, which with 101 members (including 39 freshmen) is the largest ideological caucus in Congress.

But just behind the NDC in size is the Progressive Caucus, at 97 members. Some New Democrats are also in the Progressive Caucus, but for the most part the groups serve as distinct counterweights to each other.

Both caucuses represent huge blocs of votes. They also represent two distinct paths forward. The New Democrats comes across as a bit more focus-grouped, describing their agenda as “pro-business” and “solutions oriented,” with an emphasis on the kitchen-table issues of concern to suburban voters. Progressives, on the other hand, channel the enthusiasm and frustration of a younger, more radical cohort questioning aspects of the country’s underlying economic and social structures.

The fight over the future of the Democratic party is happening in the House, and while progressives seem to have lost the momentum for the moment, it remains to be seen whether moderates can take hold of the party’s message. Democratic success will depend on House leadership managing the fight and keeping both sides happy.

Respective disruption

The New Democrats are confident the way forward for their party is to seek pragmatic policy solutions to longtime liberal agenda items.

“We caucus around issues of opportunity, entrepreneurism, pro-business but also pro-people, pro-planet,” said Rep. Chrissy Houlahan of Pennsylvania, another freshman and NDC member. She calls the approach of her and like-minded members as “respective disruption.”

“I think that there is much to be said for vision and aspirational ideals. We should all have them,” Houlahan said. “But we should also have solutions that are tenable.”

The New Democrats aren’t likely to throw their weight behind the Green New Deal or Medicare for All, which could prevent either proposal from getting a vote on the House floor this session. Multiple staffers for moderate Democrats expressed their frustration at the way Ocasio-Cortez unveiled the Green New Deal, without much of a plan for defending it.

“Green New Deal is definitely a vision, and I understand why it’s appealing,” said Houlahan. What would the pro-environment moderates propose if not the Green New Deal? It’s not exactly clear. Houlahan said that the solution for climate change is a “beautiful tree” made of more practical proposals.

“Some of it have to do with energy, some have to do with agriculture, some have to do with health care, some have to do with education, and all of those things together are the real green deal, the thing that will really happen,” Houlahan said.

A suburban majority

Sherrill says she won last fall by campaigning on shoring up the Affordable Care Act, undoing the new cap on state and local tax deductions, and funding more infrastructure — priorities she says she shares with her fellow New Democrats.

When asked what the top priority of his group’s members is for the current Congress, NDC chairman Derek Kilmer of Washington said health care, then added infrastructure as a close second.

“We have 40 freshman members, and most of them ran on health care,” Kilmer said.

Sherrill is one of those who campaigned on stabilizing the Affordable Care Act, which she argued had been gutted by the Republican Congress. Winning in the suburbs of northern New Jersey meant pressing forward on these economic issues while also avoiding being pulled too far to the left. Her district leans Republican, and she was among those Democratic candidates who vowed not to vote for Pelosi for speaker.

Candidates like Sherrill, say moderate Democrats, are who gave the party control of the House.

“It is a suburban majority,” said a senior adviser to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the House Democrats’ political arm. An agenda that speaks to the suburbs, not just to the party’s progressive grassroots, is what moderates say is what will keep Democrats in power.

‘Incrementalism won’t suffice’

But progressives aren’t going down without a fight. “I’m on the side of ambition in general,” Rep. Andy Levin of Michigan told CNN. “I’m someone who believes in Medicare for All. I’m someone who believes in rapid, comprehensive efforts to deal with our warming climate. Incrementalism won’t suffice.”

Two leaders in the Progressive Caucus, Omar and Rep. Ro Khanna of California, said Medicare for All should make it into the House Democratic budget, even if it makes moderates in the party uncomfortable. “They have the right to vote against it,” said Khanna. “We should pull up what we believe in, what a lot of our presidential candidates are running on, and people can vote.”

The moderates so far aren’t swayed. When asked if she supports Medicare for All, Houlahan shook her head. “I’m trying to get the business of the people done, and right now I believe, collectively in this Congress, the progress that can be made is to work to get the Affordable Care Act to work the way it’s supposed to work,” she said. Sherrill is also opposed to Medicare for All.

“That doesn’t mean we can’t get some good ideas” from the proposal, she said.

Next up: a budget battle

The true test will come if and when House Democrats lay out a statement of the party’s priorities in a federal budget proposal.

Torn between factions fighting over taxes, defense spending, health care and environmental proposals, House Democrats may not even vote on their own budget proposal this year, House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth of Kentucky told CNN. With 235 members, House Democratic leaders can only afford to lose 17 members in passing a partisan budget resolution.

“We’ve got moderates who don’t want to vote for any revenue increase, we’ve got liberals who either want us to spend more or want to cut defense and so forth,” said Yarmuth. “It’s just a hard path.”

At a news conference earlier this month, Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the co-chair of the Progressive Caucus and the lead sponsor of Medicare for All, said her group would be releasing its own budget — no matter what.

“We intend to put forward our values,” she said.