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Congressional Progressive Caucus Works to Increase Influence

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Rep. Keith Ellison, co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, has worked to forge alliances with outside groups, part of the House caucus’s plan to expand its reach.

Taking a page from their conservative counterparts, House liberals are ramping up their efforts to become a force both under the Dome and on the campaign trail.

Over the past several months, the Congressional Progressive Caucus has begun formalizing ties to a number of outside groups and organizing internally to bring more pressure to bear on leadership.

“We’ve always been a great group, but in my opinion we’ve not punched above our weight; we’ve punched below,” Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), co-chairman of the CPC, said in an interview last week.

Indeed, one Democratic leadership aide said the caucus “in the past hasn’t been taken very seriously.” And Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the other co-chairman of the caucus, said: “There’s no question that part of all this is the sense of not being taken seriously. And so if we’re going to be taken seriously, we’re going to be serious.”

The Blue Dog Coalition saw its membership cut in half after the bruising midterm elections, whereas the 77-member Progressive Caucus lost only a few in its ranks. Because of the group’s naturally close ties to Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and its strong membership levels, the caucus has historically functioned as a loose alliance with little strategic vision. This year, however, the group has become an outspoken force in Democratic Caucus meetings and publicly, where Members have offered policy proposals and even criticized President Barack Obama.

“I think all of the members just sort of got together and decided we had to step up our game,” an aide to a CPC member said. “We can’t just speak our piece and sit down. We have to speak our piece and figure out a construct to move it forward.”

Aides and Congressional observers said the caucus became more organized during the 2009 debate over whether to include a public option in the health care reform law. While the group ultimately lost that battle — and drew criticism for causing public spats with fellow Democrats and the Obama administration — members learned how to better mobilize outside groups and build a press strategy that resonated outside the Beltway.

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