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Biden's agenda confronts shifting House Democratic power dynamics

Analysis: Centrist Democrats used to steer the ship in the Obama era. Now, progressives are taking the wheel.
Image: House Returns From Recess To Consider Infrastructure And Reconciliation Bills
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi finds herself dealing with shifting currents in her own caucus as she helps navigate President Joe Biden's agenda through the House.Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images

WASHINGTON — A battle between competing House Democratic factions yielded some concessions for centrists last week — but the end result only underscored the extent to which progressives are winning the larger war for the party.

The tense standoff over how to proceed on President Joe Biden's $550 billion infrastructure bill and a $3.5 trillion expansion of the safety net yielded a simple compromise: Do both, and pass them quickly. Moderates secured a Sept. 27 deadline to vote on the infrastructure legislation, and all 220 Democrats voted to move forward with the multitrillion-dollar bill.

Such a vote would have been unthinkable in 2009 and 2010, the last time Nancy Pelosi was speaker of the House and oversaw a larger majority under then-President Barack Obama.

But the makeup of the Democratic caucus has changed as a result of a deeper shift in voter attitudes in the party and the country, enabling Biden to push for a more progressive agenda than his former boss could have dreamed of passing.

“We have a strong progressive majority within the Democratic caucus,” Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., told NBC News. “It's not progressives who are on the outskirts howling in the wind. It is conservatives who are trying, one way or another, to find their way back into the conversation.”

Kristen Hawn, the former top spokeswoman and adviser to the Blue Dogs in the Obama era, said she suspected that it is “some members on the further left who don’t have races, don’t have to worry about anything, who are being the most vocal” in favor of more aggressive policies and tactics.

During the party’s last trifecta in 2009 and 2010, the larger House majority was made up of scores of rural and Southern lawmakers who represented culturally conservative districts. They were willing to tank Democratic priorities and regularly flexed power to shape them, such as by inserting anti-abortion language into the Affordable Care Act and preventing gun control efforts.

House Ways and Means Chair Richard Neal, D-Mass., a key figure in writing the multitrillion-dollar bill, said the party is in good shape to get progressives and centrists on board. When asked about the difficulty of corralling centrists in the Obama-era majority, Neal quipped: “Don't remind me.”

'A fundamental shift in our politics'

Since 2010, a political realignment fueled by the election of the first Black president has wiped out most rural Democrats. The new, slimmer Democratic majority hinges on suburban districts that used to reliably vote Republican but drifted away from the GOP in the age of Donald Trump. The new suburban “majority makers” are from well-educated districts with more liberal social values.

The result is a narrower Democratic majority, but one that is more cohesive and progressive.

The Progressive Caucus has grown to 95 House members. Centrist Democrats have split into three factions, with some overlapping membership: The Problem Solvers Caucus (which stresses bipartisanship), a shrunken Blue Dog Coalition (which emphasizes fiscal responsibility) and the New Democrat Coalition (which calls for bridging left-right divides).

In 2000, just 27 percent of Democratic voters identified as liberal. By 2019, that number had grown to 47 percent, according to the Pew Research Center.

Gallup tracking polls found that between 2001 and 2006, self-identified moderates outnumbered liberals in the Democratic Party by 10 points. Between 2013 and 2018, liberals outnumbered moderates by 11 points.

“I think it's reflective of a fundamental shift in our politics. This is really about a shift in everyday people and in voters, who now value, in a much greater way, progressive values,” said 31-year-old Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., a social media sensation who represents a new generation of progressives.

“People want to see Medicare expanded. They want universal child care. They want a $15 federal minimum wage,” she said. “And those values are a lot more compelling right now to everyday people than austerity measures traditionally championed by the Blue Dog caucus.”

Republicans say the Democratic left is flexing power.

“I think the party has moved pretty dramatically to the left. And I think they’re very afraid that they’ll lose the majority next time,” Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., said, adding that Democrats are trying to use their power to pass an agenda as big as the New Deal and the Great Society.

'Frustration among' majority-makers

The shifting dynamics have elevated tensions and mistrust within the party. Progressives depict centrists as too corporate-friendly and skittish about pursuing a transformative populist agenda. Centrists complain that progressives, many of whom represent safe Democratic districts, don’t understand what it takes to win in competitive parts of the country.

“There has always been frustration among the members of the caucus who have really tough races, and trying to impart to the other members what their districts are like and how hard they’re having to fight every day,” said Hawn, the former Blue Dog Coalition adviser. “I was in the House in 2010 when we lost almost 70 seats. The minority is terrible!”

The coming weeks and months will pose a test for the Democratic caucus that could define the party in the 2022 midterm elections — and for years to come. The task before them is to ink the largest expansion of the social safety net in generations with wafer-thin majorities and a host of differences to resolve quickly.

The cohesiveness of the modern era is owed in part to lessons learned from 2010. The “shellacking” that Obama lamented was suffered largely by Democrats who thought they could distance themselves from the president and win where he was unpopular. That calculation proved dramatically wrong. And the collapse of “ticket-splitting” has led many of today’s centrist Democrats to believe that their path to survival hinges on making Biden a successful president.

The price tag of $3.5 trillion is “a crazy amount of money,” Hawn said.

But she added: “There is an incentive to give the president a win.”

Brad Miller, a former Democratic congressman from North Carolina who represented an area that has tilted to the GOP, said it's a fool's errand for lawmakers to think they can “separate themselves” from Biden and still win.

“In 2010, every Democrat's name on every ballot was Barack Obama,” he said. “In 2022, every Democrat's name on every ballot will be Joe Biden.”