Saturday, 05 January 2013 19:11

Will new senators push Democrats to the left?

Written by  Brian Montopoli | CBSNews
Elizabeth Warren Elizabeth Warren

When Massachusetts Democrat Elizabeth Warren and the rest of the 2013 class of liberal senators start work this month, they'll have to do more than figure out the byzantine ways of getting things done in Washington.

They'll also have to decide how seriously to engage a progressive movement that sees their assent a historic opportunity to shift the Democratic Party to the left.

"The cavalry is arriving," said Adam Green, cofounder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. "A lot of news coverage after the election focused on Democrats winning two seats, but the big story for us is the composition of the Democratic caucus has moved in a massively progressive direction."

Warren, the consumer advocate who articulates a full-throated populism rarely heard in Washington in recent years, is the most prominent of the new progressive members. But she is far from alone: There's Wisconsin's Tammy Baldwin, who hails from the liberal bastion of Madison; Connecticut's Chris Murphy, a loyal Democrat who replaces the moderate Joe Lieberman; and Hawaii's Mazie Hirono, who during her tenure in the House has been a leading member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. They are the sort of Democrats who don't mind discussing a strong role for government in American life.

The four incoming senators join progressives Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island - both of whom were reelected in November - and other liberal stalwarts in the Senate, among them Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Al Franken of Minnesota. Meanwhile, moderates Democrats Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Kent Conrad of North Dakota and Lieberman of Connecticut (an independent who caucuses with Democrats) - all of whom have repeatedly angered progressives - have retired.

The new crop of left-leaning senators and their progressive allies reflect something of a break with the modern Democratic Party. In the 1990s, then-president Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council successfully moved the party away from the economic populism and leftist positions it had embraced since the late 1960s. It was a vision reflected by Mr. Clinton's decision in 1996 to sign legislation to end "welfare as we know it," and his declaration that the "era of big government is over." Liberals derided the "triangulation" reflected by Mr. Clinton's policies as reflecting an abdication of what the Democratic Party stands for.

Despite claims by some on the right that President Obama has a "socialist agenda" - in the words of Mr. Clinton's onetime aide, Dick Morris, who has been credited as the father of triangulation - progressives have lamented that Mr. Obama has largely not sought to return his party to the unapologetic populism of the pre-Clinton era. While they stood by Mr. Obama in the 2012 election cycle, they rallied enthusiastically around Warren, who did not shy away from deeming the economic and political system "rigged" against the middle class. The rhetoric of Warren and the other new Senate progressives has prompted comparisons to progressive heroes like Paul Wellstone and Hubert Humphrey - along with George McGovern, whose trouncing in the 1972 presidential election helped give rise to the Democratic Leadership Council.

Green says the influx of progressive voices in the Senate will "embolden everybody to advance more progressive priorities." And he argues that polling proves that progressive positions, such as protecting entitlement programs, are embraced by most Americans and thus deserving of unapologetic Democratic support. "There's no reason that any Democrat in the caucus should ever get behind cuts to any of these benefits if they care about what's political popular," he said.

Others are more skeptical.

"I don't expect [the Senate] to change much if at all," said Jim Manley, a former top communications aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and "liberal lion" Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. "I appreciate the idea that there's an influx of progressives, and I think that's good news, but the fact is until you get 60 votes to cut off a filibuster, you're going to need to compromise to get anything done, and Senator Reid is going to continue to look out for the caucus as a whole. For every Elizabeth Warren, there's a Mark Pryor who's up for reelection in 2014."

Pryor hails from the largely red state of Arkansas, and is seen as among the most vulnerable Democrats facing reelection two years from now. Other Democrats in a similar position include Sens. Mark Begich of Alaska, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Max Baucus of Montana, Tim Johnson of South Dakota and Kay Hagan of North Carolina. If all six lose their seats and Democrats don't pick up any seats to offset the losses, the Democratic Party will go from a 55-vote majority in the Senate to a minority. It's also worth noting that some of the incoming senators who will caucus with Democrats - including Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Tim Kaine of Virginia and Angus King of Maine - will likely seek to push the party in a more moderate direction.

Manley argued that even if Reid wants to embrace a more progressive position, he's not going to risk losing the Senate to do so - especially since Republicans control the House and can block any progressive legislation. His recommendation to Warren and her progressive colleagues is to "do what Hillary Clinton did and what Sen. Barack Obama did, which is to keep your head down, attend your hearings, study your briefing books and pick and choose your spots and try to take on an important issue."

"I don't mean that they shouldn't take on issues and try and push them forward, but they've got to realize that in this hyper-partisan political atmosphere the chance for enacting such legislation is pretty slim," he added.

Congressional scholar Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution agreed with Manley's take on the impact of the progressive newcomers, saying he is "skeptical of any significant change."

"The reason being our politics these days are very much shaped from the top down, rather than the bottom up," he said. "And nothing these people are bringing differ in any significant way from Sherrod Brown, from Sheldon Whitehouse and others."

Green, of the Progressive Campaign Change Committee, dismisses concerns about protecting vulnerable senators up for reelection as "old school, out of touch thinking," pointing to polls that show progressive positions popular in red states. Green acknowledged a cultural divide in some of these states, but said economic populism makes sense even for Democrats like Pryor. "Poor rural voters in Arkansas are not rooting for Wall Street to get away with murder, or to close on their houses," he said.

Even if Reid and the more moderate Democrats suppress efforts by progressive senators to push more liberal legislation, there are openings for progressives to assert themselves. Warren may be low on the totem pole in terms of seniority, but her assignment to the Senate Banking Committee will give her a perch from which to potentially make national headlines in her battles with Wall Street. And the ascension of Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., to the Budget Committee chairmanship, where she replaces Conrad, will mean a greater focus on liberal issues there. Conrad's focus was reducing the deficit; Murray says she will focus on "making sure we invest in the right places, in education, in job training, and to make sure we do a balanced approach moving forward." Progressive senators can also use leverage to move big pieces of legislation to the left, as they attempted to do in the "fiscal cliff" fight when they sent a letter to Mr. Obama demanding that he not buckle to Republican demands on revenues and spending cuts. 

All four of the incoming progressive senators declined to be interviewed for this article. That may be because discussing their plans is a no-win situation: If they say they are going to keep their heads down and play by the rules, as Manley advises, they risk angering progressives. If they say they plan to push hard for their agenda, seniority be damned, they risk angering their new colleagues in the tradition-obsessed Senate before their first day of work. A top aide to one of the incoming senators told CBS News that the structure of the Senate does not lend itself to dramatic legislative action; that won't change even if moderate filibuster reform goes into effect in the new Congress.

Some have speculated that the influx of progressive senators will mean further polarization of an already-polarized Congress, with the liberal Democratic wing occupying the same obstructionist position in the Senate that the tea party Republican wing plays in the House. Mann, author of "It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism," dismissed that concern.

"The Democratic Party has been repositioned as a center-left party, and that doesn't mean they don't articulate progressive goals and aspirations, but they're pragmatic people who know that to realize their ambitions substantively they've got to make the finances of the country whole," he said, arguing that the ideological extremism is "almost entirely" within the GOP. Even with the addition of the new progressive senators, he added, Democrats are "really a pragmatic lot, not an ideological lot."

The day after she won election, Warren vowed to reach across the aisle, saying she will "work with anyone" in order "to help get something done." Green argued that her focus should be not on moving toward Republicans but on harnessing progressive enthusiasm to force them - and her party - to move in her direction. He said one of her first priorities should be to push the Senate to reinstate the Glass-Steagall Act that mandated the separation of commercial and investment banking.

"We're living in a world where committee assignment and seniority takes a backseat to who can apply outside pressure in order to affect change from within," he said. "There's nobody in the Senate that's more capable of applying outside pressure for popular change than Elizabeth Warren."

"If the Senate passes popular Wall Street reform and the House blocks it, that just creates a valuable messaging opportunity for 2014," Green added. "And I'm sure Harry Reid would be happy about that."

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