Ocasio-Cortez Floats a “Sub-Caucus” of Progressives Willing to Vote Together as a Bloc

If persuasion doesn’t work, and the CPC isn’t maximizing its influence, Ocasio-Cortez has made clear that she is aware of the tools at her disposal.

MEET THE PRESS -- Pictured: (l-r)  Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democratic Nominee for New York's 14th Congressional District, appears on "Meet the Press" in Washington, D.C., Sunday, July 1, 2018. (Photo by: William B. Plowman/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images)
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez appears on "Meet the Press" in Washington, D.C., on July 1, 2018. Photo: William B. Plowman/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is exploring forming a “sub-caucus” of progressives in the House that would be willing to vote as a bloc to leverage their power, she said in a recent podcast interview.

Progressives in Congress have been watching Ocasio-Cortez closely for clues as to how she’ll navigate the unwieldy chamber that is the House of Representatives, where she is expected to arrive after the November election.

The interest in her includes the personal — Will she endorse a primary challenge against me? — as well as the institutional. Progressive Democrats are excited to have a telegenic spokesperson carrying their message, but some have expressed private concerns that she may look to organize a bloc of Democrats who could eclipse the Congressional Progressive Caucus in prominence.

Ocasio-Cortez has been insistent that she has no intention of burning the party to the ground or stoking needless internal rifts, preferring instead to persuade her colleagues to move in a more aggressively populist direction. “As unapologetic and strong as I am in my messaging and my beliefs, my style is that I’m a consensus-builder,” she said on the podcast.

But she is at bottom an organizer, and if persuasion doesn’t work, and the caucus isn’t maximizing its influence, she has made clear that she is aware of the tools at her disposal.  

In a recent interview on Jacobin’s podcast, recorded after the election, Ocasio-Cortez floated the idea of a bloc of progressives who would stick together to demand stronger legislation.

The current CPC, made up of 78 members, is too amorphous to act as a united bloc, which saps it of its strength, Ocasio-Cortez argued. It’s the same rationale that conservatives who built the powerful Freedom Caucus three years ago used when they broke away from the larger Republican Study Committee, the GOP equivalent of the progressive caucus.

“The thing that gives the caucus power is that you can operate as a bloc vote in order to get things done,” Ocasio-Cortez told Daniel Denvir, host of Jacobin’s “The Dig.” “Even if you can carve out a sub-portion, a sub-caucus of the progressive caucus, even if you could carve out that, even a smaller bloc, but one that operates as a bloc, then you could generate real power.”

If Democrats wind up holding a slim majority in future Congresses, a progressive sub-caucus wouldn’t need many members to tip the balance, since leadership would need all of them on board to move forward. “If you can even carve out a caucus of 10, 30 people it does not take a lot, if you operate as a bloc vote, to really make strong demands on things,” she said.

What Ocasio-Cortez is floating — a progressive mirroring of the Freedom Caucus — has been flirted with in the past in Congress. Congressional Black Caucus members have at times voted as a bloc and extracted concessions, but the CPC has been much quicker to blink.

The problem — if it can be called one — is that progressives, even those at the edge of the party’s spectrum, are much less willing to shoot the hostage than ultra-conservatives, a point made by multiple members of the CPC who The Intercept spoke to about the Ocasio-Cortez idea. Ideologically, conservatives who broadly oppose government spending, or the government in general — it is, according to Ronald Reagan, “the problem” — have less of an issue with shutting down the government or rejecting legislation. Republicans tend to look to roll things back, while Democrats, in the ideal, are trying to build things up. And very few Democrats are willing to reject a small amount of progress because it isn’t enough.

In 2009, for example, several dozen Democrats signed a letter saying that they wouldn’t support any version of health care reform that didn’t include a “robust” public health insurance option. By drawing a line in the sand, they drew the attention of leadership and the White House and were able to extract concessions (such as the legal ability for a state to move forward with a single-payer system if it chose). But the final version of the Affordable Care Act did not include a public option, and every member who had signed the letter voted for it anyway. Given a binary choice between voting “no” and voting to expand Medicaid, expand coverage broadly, and implement the other reforms of the Affordable Care Act, it would have taken a rare progressive to vote “no.” Leadership knows that, which makes progressive threats fundamentally less credible than conservative ones.

But that’s not reason not to try, especially if the process moves negotiations over legislation in a more progressive direction. “I like to think that I’m persuasive. So I usually am able to make the pragmatic case for doing really ambitious things,” Ocasio-Cortez said on the podcast. “Not to say that I can carry a caucus on my back or anything, but I think that there’s a willingness right now — we’ll see if that willingness is still there in January, because, you know, these cycles change and sentiments change so much.”

The number of Democrats who might be willing to take a firm stand and credibly threaten to oppose legislation if it’s not strong enough is small, likely fewer than 10 at the moment, including progressives such as Pramila Jayapal, Ro Khanna, or Jamie Raskin. But more Democrats will be arriving next year who may take a more aggressive tact.

Rashida Tlaib, who is running to replace Rep. John Conyers Jr. in Michigan’s 13th Congressional District, could be one of those. “What’s clear is that a label, like ‘Democrat’ or ‘progressive,’ doesn’t speak nearly as loudly as actions, and that we cannot give folks a pass when they have the right label but aren’t taking action to make the lives of working families better,” said Andy Goddeeris, a spokesperson for Tlaib, when asked about the Ocasio-Cortez plan. “When we send Rashida to Congress, she’s not going to be afraid to tell the folks in her own caucuses when they’re selling out the people. But I think she would ideally like to see a consensus built among progressive legislators. Standing together in support of bold, unapologetic policy in service of working-class people is what’s necessary to fight back against the right wing.”

Top photo: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez appears on “Meet the Press” in Washington, D.C., on July 1, 2018.

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