Representatives Barbara Lee and Lynn Woolsey – co-Chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus – aren’t concerned about the close-to-conventional wisdom that conservative and Blue Dog Democrats will dominate the next Congress.
The CPC – already the largest caucus in Congress with 64 members – is expected to add at least seven new Democrats after this election. (Eight of the twelve candidates who received campaign support from caucus members won their races, including: Jerry McNerney (CA); Phil Hare (IL); Keith Ellison (MN); Bruce Braley (IA); John Hall (NY); Mazie Hirono (HI); Gabrielle Giffords (AZ); and Julia Carson (IN).) The CPC will now be represented in the Senate, too, where Senator-elect Bernie Sanders has pledged to remain a member and help recruit his new colleagues, and Sherrod Brown is expected to do the same.
Most significantly, the CPC’s pressing issues are in sync with the American public’s interests and desires. “We represent the real democratic values of our party,” Woolsey says.
“We are a big tent party, but it was the war and economic issues that won this election,” says Lee. “CPC members were the ones who didn’t vote for the war in Iraq; and CPC members were the ones who called for an end to the Iraq War. And as far as the economy goes, proposals like raising the minimum wage are part of the progressive agenda.”
Woolsey believes that the diversity of ideas within the party represents an opportunity. “Our party can prove to the nation that we represent all Americans – not just a slice of America. But our role is clear: if we sat quietly and let moderate Democrats become the left edge, then right-wingers would sail….They wouldn’t look so right-wingy anymore!”
The Caucus has a clear vision for the upcoming Congress. It will support former-CPC member and Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi on her First 100 Hours and Six for ’06 initiatives. But both Lee and Woolsey say that the CPC is focused on going “beyond that.” They point to the caucus’ Progressive Promise which outlines its goals in the areas of economic security, civil rights and liberties, global peace and security, and environmental protection and energy independence.
“We have to keep our promise to the American people by passing our Progressive Promise,” Lee says.
Among other legislation, Woolsey looks forward to the CPC’s unveiling of its “Peace and Security” budget this Spring. It will show “what a budget would look like if we invested in peace.” She points to addressing the Patriot Act and Homeland Security (“make our nation more secure but not by taking away our rights”); making elections genuinely secure (“we as Democrats didn’t do enough about that in the past two years”); taking on media control (“the FCC needs to know that we need more than a few corporations controlling the media”); and taking real steps to free the nation from dependence on foreign oil.
And, of course, responding to the crisis in Iraq.
Lee says the CPC will work to ensure that the Democratic Caucus as a whole embraces ending the war. It will work with its “millions of supporters,” using the same “inside-outside strategy” that led to so many critical victories on Election Day. Many members will march with supporters and do all they can to expose the cost and devastation of the war and occupation. Meanwhile, the Out of Iraq Caucus – chaired by Rep. Maxine Waters and co-founded by Lee and Woolsey, among others – will present clear alternatives to the Administration’s policy.
Lee makes it clear that it was the Bush Administration that “got us into this mess. And its going to have to get us out. But we’ll come up with our specific proposals–including diplomacy with Syria and Iran.”
The CPC will also maintain its laser-like focus on reducing poverty, which Lee notes isn’t just an urban problem but impacts rural communities too.
With at least 10 CPC members expected to chair committees, and 35 members chairing subcommittees, both Lee and Woolsey are confident that the caucus’ ideas and vision will inform the Democrats’ approach on issues across the board.
“We’ll be a steady and firm part of the debate,” Woolsey says. “We’ll get our amendments introduced. We’ll have a voice.”
Lee points to the critical role of witnesses in hearings. “We’ll get a chance to call our witnesses,” she says. “New ideas will be brought before the committees. Listening to people and presenting new ideas – that’s how you come up with good legislation. Speaking [as a Representative from California], we are going to call more African-American, Latino, and Asian Pacific Islander American witnesses. We’re going to call on our best and brightest. Republicans didn’t do that.”
Hearings will also allow CPC members to do their job of oversight. “We had a Republican Congress of No Oversight,” Woolsey says. “The American people have been left with blanks where there should be answers. How did we get into Iraq? Where did the Reconstruction money go? Why did Abu Ghraib happen? What went wrong during Katrina? We will investigate and we will get answers. [CPC member] John Conyers will chair the Judiciary Committee – what more can I say?”
Lee and Woolsey are both reflective about the disastrous period which has now – in part – ended, and the work that lies ahead.
“Our country was on the brink,” Lee says. “Domestic surveillance, torture, suspension of the Geneva Conventions. Our fundamental notion of democracy was at risk. Now we’ve got to take our country back. We were close to losing it, now we have to restore our democracy.”
“My message to my leadership is this: this country elected us to be bold,” Woolsey says. “They didn’t elect us to wait for James Baker to report. They said they trust Democrats to get us out of Iraq. And they didn’t elect Democrats to simply be partners with President Bush – rather, the public told us to correct, challenge and confront the President. I believe in nothing but boldness from this point on.”
“This is a defining moment and we can’t lose it,” Lee adds. “It’s full steam ahead.”