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The Progressive Block

Note: This is a guest post by Chris Bowers, co-founder of OpenLeft, that we feature as part of our continuing discussion on intraparty and intraprogressive debates. It was first published at OpenLeft on Friday, June 19, and was discussed by Ed Kilgore here that same day.

When Democrats were in the minority in the Senate, they argued to progressive activists that, in order to pass the type of legislation we wanted, we needed to take back the majority in the Senate. So, in 2006, progressive activists worked their butts off and helped deliver Democrats a Senate majority.

After Senate Democrats had the majority, they argued to progressive activists that, in order to pass the type of legislation we wanted, they told they needed not just the majority, but also 60 votes in the Senate and control of the White House. So, in 2008, progressive activists worked their butts off and helped deliver not only the White House, but also sixty votes in the Senate (once al Franken is seated, of course).

Now that Democrats have wide majorities in both branches of Congress, not to mention control of the White House, we are still being told that our agenda is not politically possible. However, what is really happening is that a block of conservative Democrats are regularly joining with Republicans to weaken, or block entirely, many of the pillars of the progressive legislative agenda:

1. Stimulus: A group of nearly twenty Senators, most of them Democrats, successfully watered down an already too small stimulus was watered down by $96 billion.

2. Health Care: After the budget passed, and allowed for the 50-vote process on reconciliation, we are now being told by Kent Conrad that there are not enough votes in the Senate to pass a public option. Since that time, bad news for the public option has rained down, including former Democratic Senator Majority Leader and one-time nominee for HHS Secretary Tom Dsachle telling Democrats to drop the public option.

3. Climate Change. The already weakened Waxman-Markey climate change bill is currently being help up and further weakened by a block of 50 House Democrats led by Collin Peterson. The bill already has lower renewable targets than China and most of the 50 states, not to mention removes the EPA's authority to regulate carbon. However, that isn't good enough for Peterson, so expect much of the same to happen once this bill finally passes the House and reaches the Senate.

4. Employee Free Choice Act: Six Senators, all of whom are now Democrats, flipped their position on the Employee Free Choice Act. Originally, at the start of Congress, and once Al Franken was seated, there were enough votes to pass EFCA. No more--not even in a 60-vote Senate.

5. Cramdown: Twelve Democratic Senators, and all Republicans, voted against the foreclosure bankruptcy reform known as cramdown. This measure would have allowed bankruptcy judges to reduce the price of mortgages for people in bankruptcy, thus allowing hundreds of thousands to keep their home. It was ostensibly supported by the Obama administration.

Time and time again, conservative Democrats representing between 10% and 25% of their chamber's Democratic caucus have formed a block, joined with Republicans, and successfully weakened, severely threatened, or entirely blocked key elements of the progressive legislative agenda. They were successful in every case despite the ostensible, public support for that agenda by the Obama administration.

All of this is enough to make one think that it simply wasn't true that Democrats needed 60-votes in the Senate and control of the White House in order to pass progressive legislation. It turns out that Matt Stoller's arguments on the 60-vote myth were correct.

Instead of 60 votes in the Senate, what progressives need is Democratic control of both branches of Congress, control of the White House, and a progressive block of at least 13 Senators and 45 House members that will vote against Democratic legislation unless their demands are met. What we need is our own version of the Blue Dogs and Evan Bayh's "conservodem" Senate group that is large enough, and staunch enough, to be able to block Democratic legislation by joining with Republicans.

We need this group to draw hard lines in the sand for the two biggest legislative priorities of 2009: health care and climate change. The group needs to make it clear that, if their demands are not met, then no climate change or health care legislation of any sort will be passed. Demands like:

1. Health care: A public health insurance option that is immediately available to all Americans.

2. Climate change: Restoring the EPA's ability to regulate carbon and renewable energy targets that surpass those put in place by China..

The models for the progressive block are the Blue Dogs, the Senate "conservodems," and also the Afghanistan-IMF supplemental fight. In that fight, a progressive block of 32 House Democrats help up the White House and the Democratic congressional leadership for two weeks, forcing them to whip votes hard and make some concessions. With 13 more votes, there was a good chance they could have succeeded in severely denting the neoliberal "Washington consensus," and forcing real reform at the IMF. While the fight was not ultimately successful, it forced the White House to deal with the Progressive Caucus more than any other legislative fight in 2009.

Such a progressive block is already in place in the House for health care. In that chamber and on that issue, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has stated there are not enough votes to pass health care reform without a public option. We need to form a corresponding health care block in the Senate, and corresponding blocks in both chambers on climate change legislation.

Once these blocks are in place, the White House and Democratic leadership will be forced to either whip conservative Democrats to fall in line with the demands of the Progressive Block, or to convince an equal number of Republicans to support compromise legislation. Either way, we will put an end to the dynamic of the White House and Democratic leadership offering muted public support for progressive legislation, while conservative Democrats threaten, weaken and block that legislation. They will either have to come out in public for more moderate legislation, or start working hard for progressive legislation.

We need a Progressive Block, not 60 votes in the Senate. For the next few months, progressive legislative efforts should be directed at putting that Block into place.