WASHINGTON — The "squad" is getting backup from a newly elected group of lawmakers, which means more progressive stars lighting up social media and more pressure from the left on President-elect Joe Biden and the diminished Democratic majority in the House.
"It's really exciting to see them ready to throw down," Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., one of the four original members of the squad, said in an interview. The others are Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan.
The Democratic wipeout in swing districts in November left behind a smaller, but somewhat more progressive Democratic caucus hailing mainly from blue areas. Of the 15 incoming freshmen lawmakers, eight are members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and at least four have ties to the squad.
"These new, incredibly great leaders are reinforcements coming over the hill," said Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., an elder statesman who aligned himself with the young insurgents to overcome a primary challenge this year.
The squad began with an Instagram caption and grew into a left-wing political phenom and bete noire for Republicans (and some Democrats) that quickly made the small group of freshmen lawmakers an outsize topic of debate and Ocasio-Cortez one of the most influential politicians on social media.
At an orientation for new members of Congress following the 2018 election, Ocasio-Cortez posted the caption next to a photo of herself, Omar, Tlaib and Pressley — four young diverse women who started a text message chain to swap strategy and fashion tips.
They clashed with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi from day one, when Ocasio-Cortez joined a sit-in in her office. After Pelosi dismissed the group as "like, five people" in a "60 Minutes" interview, Ocasio-Cortez responded by saying, "all right, let's go get more" and went on a recruiting spree.
Democrats are on track to initially have as few as 220 seats in the next Congress — barely more than the 218 needed to pass bills — which could give a small groups of lawmakers leverage by threatening to block votes, much as the conservative Freedom Caucus did when Republicans controlled Congress.
Most progressives are not ready to pursue that strategy, at least for now, and plan to support Pelosi's re-election to the speakership. They'll instead try to strike a balance between governing and activism as both the insurgents and the leaders seem to be creeping closer toward each other to keep the peace.
"Leadership is starting to listen because, you know what, there are more of us now," Rep.-elect Marie Newman, who looks a little different than her younger, nonwhite new colleagues, said. But she, too, beat a longtime Democratic congressman, Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Ill., in a rematch this year, with support from both left-wing groups and mainstream abortion rights groups.
"They're taking it to heart. And I expect to see some changes," she added.
Even before being sworn in, the new lawmakers have begun to make their voices heard, criticizing some of Biden's potential Cabinet choices and joining Markey and the squad at a press conference outside the Democratic National Committee to urge the incoming administration to go big.
The new members include Rep-elect Jamaal Bowman, an African American former school teacher and principal who defeated a 16-term Democratic incumbent and committee chairman in a Bronx-area district. He’s taken up slavery reparations as the issue he wants to try to elevate, like Ocasio Cortez did with the Green New Deal.
"I was watching it from afar, watching Bernie Sanders run, and then watching AOC and the squad, not just win but truly come in as voices for the underserved, so to be joining them in Congress in 2021 is surreal and exciting, and I think it illustrates a shift happening in the Democratic Party," Bowman told NBC News.
Rep.-elect Mondaire Jones, 33, a former Obama Justice Department lawyer from New York, challenged a longtime incumbent Democrat in a primary who decided not to seek re-election, which created the opening for a crowded primary.
Jones then went on to win the nomination and the general election on a platform of "Medicare for All" and the Green New Deal in a wealthy and mostly white part of New York City's suburbs that includes the home of Hillary and Bill Clinton (they sent a nice congratulations note).
"We are uniquely positioned to lead the Democratic Party into the 21st century, and I don't think that has happened yet," Jones said of his fellow freshmen. "I don't think that we have fully addressed as a party the unprecedented challenges that Americans now face, such as the student loan crisis."
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Jones, along with fellow incoming Rep.-elect Ritchie Torres, a 32-year-old New York City councilman, will be the first openly gay black men in Congress.
Then there's Rep.-elect Cori Bush, a nurse and racial justice activist who got involved in the protests surrounding the 2014 shooting by police of Michael Brown, a black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri. Backed by Justice Democrats, the left-wing group that recruited Ocasio-Cortez and others, Bush defeated a 10-term incumbent in the primary and won the November election in the safe blue seat easily.
Newman said the push for Medicare for All would continue, despite Biden's opposition to the liberal policy and the fact that even if Democrats win the Georgia Senate runoffs, they likely won't have enough votes to pass major progressive bills.
"You have more people in Congress than ever that are going to be pushing really hard on this," she said. "It's going to be a really loud drumbeat."