On Wednesday, the Congressional Progressive Caucus – now the largest caucus in Congress with 69 members – co-hosted a panel discussion along with The Nation and the Institute for Policy Studies on its new Progressive Promise for America. The event took place in the Rayburn House Office Building, a long way from the Capitol basement where the Caucus was founded fifteen years ago by then-Congressman Bernie Sanders and four colleagues. Even in the last few years when Caucus Co-Chair, Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey, held hearings on Iraq, the Republicans relegated those hearings to the basement.

But now Caucus members chair the majority of committees and subcommittees in the House, and thirteen members participated in the panel even as they came and went to oversee their respective committee hearings. In attendance were: Representatives Barbara Lee, Lynn Woolsey, John Conyers, Dennis Kucinich, Charles Rangel, Sheila Jackson-Lee, Bob Filner, Diane Watson, Barney Frank, Maxine Waters, Maurice Hinchey, Keith Ellison, and Steve Cohen. The Nation’s own John Nichols served as a nimble, historically astute, and diplomatic moderator.

Panelists were joined in the conference room by allies from the NAACP, Progressive Democrats of America, Code Pink, Hip Hop Caucus, Peace Action, Campaign for America’s Future, Association of Farm Workers Opportunity Program and other progressive groups and people. The room was filled with energy and idealism, and it reflected the Caucus’ understanding that the Democratic party’s finest hours have come when it has worked alongside popular movements… that democracy works when citizens are inspired to claim it as their own. One of the caucus members set the tone for the gathering, saying we should all have smiles on our faces – we are kindred spirits who helped to change the course of our country and win the last election. It’s a new day for a new way.

It was clear from the discussion that caucus members are under no illusions about the struggles ahead – to end the war in Iraq (which Caucus co-Chair Rep. Lee called “the number one marching order” from the people); to bring economic fairness and justice to our nation; and to safeguard our constitution from a Bush administration and its Republican accomplices, who continue to trample upon it. But members are also clearly determined to seize the moment. These strong and decent representatives intend to provide a marker of opposition to the perilous policies of the Bush administration, and also offer alternatives that have the support of the majority of Americans and will inspire a sense of a new direction and new priorities. From ending the war and promoting peace, to fighting for universal health care, to demanding real energy independence and environmental protection… this Caucus and its members will offer bold initiatives.

Rep. Conyers, Chair of the Judiciary Committee, promised to look into the Bush doctrine of preemptive, unilateral action; treatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo; and the rendition of suspects to nations that practice torture. Conyers highlighted the importance of such investigations, saying, “We are living under an administration that has taken unto itself more Executive powers than anyone in history… Much of it under the radar and deliberately avoided by the media.”

Lee offered an important perspective shared by other Caucus members on how they will conduct hearings. “We have to go where the people are,” she said. “Not everyone can get to D.C.” Caucus members understand the importance of directly connecting with the people – that the people are ahead of the politicians and the pundits. That same commitment to the grassroots was evident in most committee chairs pledging to go to New Orleans with their members.

Rep. Frank repeated his charge that the administration’s Katrina-response (or lack thereof) was “ethnic cleansing by inaction.” Frank will invite members of the Financial Services Committee, which he chairs, to join him in visiting New Orleans during the February recess – a visit which will in part inform hearings on affordable housing that he will hold with Rep. Waters. Frank will also challenge the Bush administration’s trade agenda. He had just returned from Davos, where elite circles believed the next (Doha) round of WTO negotiations would move smoothly along – further illustration, Frank told the room, of not only this administration’s denial but also US and global corporate myopia when it comes to recognizing the shift represented by the recent election.

Threading through almost all of the caucus members’ talk was a commitment to rebuilding a city the Bush administration has virtually forgotten – in words and deeds. Rep. Filner, chair of the Committee on Veterans Affairs, pledged that he would also visit New Orleans. Filner cited that there are 200,000 homeless veterans on any given night – half of whom are Vietnam vets – and how this speaks to the importance of getting the Veterans Administration to treat post traumatic stress disorder and other forms of mental illness. He spoke eloquently about why we cannot expect our soldiers to watch their friends get blown up, or mistakenly shoot an innocent, and come home without emotional struggles and challenges. Filner pointed to several hundred cases of suicide committed by soldiers returning home, and he has tried unsuccessfully to obtain the corresponding documentation. His message to soldiers in Iraq is this: “We’re against the policy that sent you to war but we’re going to give you every bit of care we can.” Part of Filner’s caring for soldiers is through his co-sponsorship of the Bring Our Troops Home and Sovereignty of Iraq Restoration Act, which – in addition to funding a 6-month orderly withdrawal – would guarantee full health care funding, including mental health, for U.S. veterans of the Iraq war and other conflicts.

Indeed that piece of legislation now has 29 co-sponsors, and legislation has also been introduced by Rep. Kucinich, and Representatives Jerrold Nadler and James McGovern – also Caucus members. These legislators have provided the alternative that the Bush administration and its dwindling allies still claim doesn’t exist, including: funding for a 6-month orderly withdrawal of troops and contractors; no permanent bases in Iraq; Iraqi control over their own oil; and participation in international peacekeeping and diplomatic efforts. Caucus members are also fighting the myth that voting to bring the troops home and funding a withdrawal is tantamount to not supporting the troops. As Conyers said, the power of the purse exists for times such as now – to rein in an Executive who is out of control.

Freshman Rep. Cohen, from Memphis, spoke of how ending the war was a key issue in his election and for his district. The caucus, he said, plays a key role in recognizing the urgency of ending this war and not backing off. Cohen cited the lyrics of Jackson Browne’s Lives in the Balance (Where a government lies to a people/And a country is drifting to war/… There are lives in the balance/There are people under fire/There are children at the cannons/And there is blood on the wire).

Another freshman, Rep. Ellison of Minneapolis (the first Muslim elected to Congress), closed the panel discussion with a brevity and a clarity that I hope captures the ascendant new progressive spirit. He recounted that during his campaign he told the voters that he wanted to “go to DC to end the war and hold those who took us to war to account. But we also need to stop the next war.” He said that the United States must use its power to promote justice and peace.

Perhaps the most personal perspective on the gathering was offered by Rep. Rangel. 76 years old and referred to as “one of the old bulls,” Rangel said that he had considered leaving Congress because he actually feared that his grandchildren in the future might say, “You were there. Why didn’t you do anything?” But he stayed, in hopes that a Democratic majority would soon come to power, and that he would, in fact, be able to do something about “the most dangerous presidency in my lifetime.” Rangel drew a parallel between recent years and a civil rights march that he participated in when he was a boy. He said he complained every step of the way that his feet hurt but then, afterwards, he was glad that he had done it. The last few years have indeed been tough ones for progressives. But brighter days now lie ahead as good elected representatives offer alternatives for a more decent country.

At the end of the evening, tribute was paid to Molly Ivins. I know that she would have loved the gathering – though she might have infused it with a bit more humor. I figure she would have told that room–full of agitators and organizers– something John Nichols in his spirited tribute to Molly tells us she delighted in telling local ACLU groups across this country: “So keep fightin’ for freedom and justice, beloveds, but don’t you forget to have fun doin’ it. Lord, let your laughter ring forth. Be outrageous, ridicule the fraidy-cats, rejoice in all the oddities that freedom can produce. And when you get through kickin’ ass and celebratin’ the sheer joy of a good fight, be sure to tell those who come after how much fun it was.”

A podcast of this event will be posted on TheNation.com on Monday.