There’s one certainty for the Capitol’s most liberal lawmakers now that Democrats will control Congress: They won’t have to meet in the basement anymore.
"One time they put us in the most obscure, smallest meeting room in the farthest corner," Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio said of life for progressive Democrats under GOP control. Now, "we should be able to score a regular and accessible meeting place."
That may be the easy part.
Accustomed to pleading in obscurity for causes like universal health care, come January these progressives from Northern California, Massachusetts and elsewhere will be part of the congressional majority and in a position to actually do something about them.
Yet they risk getting pinched between liberals itching for impeachment hearings and a quick end to the Iraq war, and more centrist Democrats looking to make common cause with Republicans on fiscal issues.
And that’s assuming progressives can settle on their own goals from a long list of priorities, including universal health care, action on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, voting reform and fixing the trade imbalance.
"Most of us had one drink on election night and then got really sober," said Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash. "We’re sort of in the dog-who-caught-the-bus situation. Now that we have it, what do we do with it?"
The Progressive Caucus, founded in 1991 over frustration with the policies of the first Bush administration, claimed 63 members this year and says it is the largest active Democratic caucus in the House. The moderate New Democrats and Blue Dog Democrats have more than 40 members each, with significant overlap.
The 41 new Democratic House members elected in November include a number of moderates in Republican-leaning districts. The Blue Dogs already claim nine new recruits while the Progressive Caucus only names two to date (though it says more are expected), signaling potential difficulties ahead for progressives facing off against newly empowered moderates.
"The vast majority, maybe two-thirds of the Democratic Caucus, or over two-thirds, are not members of the Progressive Caucus, and that says volumes," said Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif., a Blue Dog member.
But expectations from left-wing constituencies are high after 12 years that saw scant discussion of liberal priorities like health care reform, education investment, affordable housing and trade protections. Troop withdrawal from Iraq is perhaps the top issue, though progressives don’t have a unified position on how fast it should happen.
"We’ll need progressives to use their committee chairmanships to help put big ideas back on the agenda," said Robert Borosage, co-director of Campaign for America’s Future, which participates in a bimonthly strategy session that includes aides to progressive House members.
Liberals will have little patience for Democrats who prefer to play ball with President Bush and the Republicans, Borosage added. "This is not a time when people are going to have much patience for that kind of collaboration," he said.
Some progressives are already signaling that if necessary, they’ll face down their own Democratic leaders to advance their priorities. Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., said he wants to see a thorough investigation of the Iraq war, including the rationale for the invasion, and is prepared to challenge party leaders to get it.
"I think most of the leadership understands this. But if leadership wants the wrong thing, then that’s what we’ll have to do," Hinchey said.
Progressives have already had to disappoint some constituents by deciding not to pursue impeachment hearings against President Bush. "That’s a huge, huge disappointment to people in my district," said Rep. Lynn Woolsey, who co-chairs the Progressive Caucus with fellow Northern California Democrat Barbara Lee.
The decision underscores something most House progressives have agreed on: at least at first, they’ll scale back their grand plans and focus on goals they can accomplish.
That means backing Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi — a Progressive Caucus member before she became Democratic leader — on her agenda for the House’s first 100 legislative hours. It calls for increasing the minimum wage, reducing energy company subsidies, lowering student loan costs and negotiating prices for Medicare prescription drugs.
After that, progressives hope to turn to their pet causes. But there’s one fate they want to avoid: losing the Democratic majority and being forced back into the basement. And that’s a powerful incentive to compromise.
"As long as everyone is willing to understand that they are part of the whole, then I think we’ll play very well together," said Rep. Michael Capuano, D-Mass., a Progressive Caucus member. "And if we don’t, then I think we will be in the minority again."
Associated Press writers Devlin Barrett and Andrew Miga contributed to this report.