House liberals use outside muscle to bolster 2010 position against Blue Dogs

The head of a not-for-profit organization affiliated with House Democratic liberals plans to raise $1 million next year to give liberals an edge in public policy battles with the conservative Blue Dog Coalition.
 
Darcy Burner, the executive director of ProgressiveCongress.org, a nonprofit education and advocacy organization, has played a behind-the-scenes role in the healthcare debate, applying constant pressure on Democratic leaders to keep the public option on the negotiating table.
 

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Burner is one of many liberal activists who have worked this year to preserve the prospects of a government-run health insurance program, despite forecasts over the summer that it would fall away amid strong opposition.
 
Unlike many other liberal activists, however, Burner can boast of two advantages: she has three lawmakers on her board of directors and a strong track record raising money.
 
Burner built her connections to House Democrats and liberal donors during two unsuccessful campaigns for Congress against Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.). (She easily out-raised the GOP incumbent in 2008.)
 
Reps. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), the co-chairmen of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), a former co-chair of the caucus, sit on the board of directors of ProgressiveCongress.org.
 
These lawmakers and liberal policy leaders, such as Robert Borosage, of Campaign for America’s Future, and Conrad Martin, of the Fund for Constitutional Government, picked Burner to run the group. The organization was incorporated in 2005 as the American Progressive Caucus Policy Foundation but it did not have any staff until this year. As a result, it played virtually no role in the policy skirmishes within the Democratic Caucus before this year.
 
But that has changed. The renamed group, which includes an educational wing organized under section 501(c)3 of the tax code and a 501(c)4 advocacy wing, has served as an important bridge between House liberals and outside groups such as MoveOn.org, US Action, People For the American Way and the AFL-CIO. It has also worked with influential liberal blogs such as Daily Kos and OpenLeft to provide updates of internal Democratic deliberations and keep up a drumbeat of demand for the public option.
 
(During a Friday morning interview with The Hill, Burner took a call from Grijalva, who gave her a report on the results of a Democratic caucus vote on the public option.)
 
“The (c)3 and the (c)4 are focused on building bridges between progressives outside and inside Congress,” said Burner.
 
Burner said the group will raise between $300,000 and $400,000 for its activities this year. Burner also runs a separate political action committee (PAC) to help liberal candidates.
 
With Barack Obama in the White House, the stakes in the ideological battles within the Democratic Party have increased. When it became increasingly apparent last year that Democrats would win the White House, liberals inside and outside of Congress decided to bolster their influence on the Hill.
 
That decision has proved prescient as liberals and centrist Democrats battle this year over the policy provisions of climate change and healthcare reform legislation.
 
Burner says that liberals grass-roots pressure has kept the public option from being written off altogether.
 
“The work of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the grass-roots on the outside is the reason that the public option is still on the table,” Burner said.
 
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Liberals have long made up a big chunk of the House Democratic Caucus, but they have often lost policy battles to a smaller group of conservative Democrats who have traditionally done a better job of wielding clout.
 
The Congressional Progressive Caucus counts more than 80 House members among its ranks. The Blue Dogs have 56 members listed on their website.
 
Blue Dogs have seen their clout grow in recent years as they have time and again threatened to vote as a bloc against the rest of the Democratic caucus as part of a strategy to shape legislation in the House. For example, they have played a major role in moving House Democrats to adopt pay-as-you-go budgetary rules, which Senate Democrats have not.
 
Blue Dogs have received outside support for their policy initiatives from Third Way, which describes itself as a “think tank of the moderate wing progressive movement.” Third Way’s honorary chairs include centrists such as Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) and Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.).
 
Leading House liberals such as Grijalva are trying to persuade like-minded colleagues that they can have as much of an impact as Blue Dogs if they wield their power as a bloc. They have threatened to vote against any final healthcare reform bill that does not include a public option.
 
“Any bill that does not provide, at a minimum, a public option built on the Medicare provider system and with reimbursement based on Medicare rates — not negotiated rates — is unacceptable,” liberal lawmakers declared in a letter to Obama in early September.
 
Playing hardball politics with party leaders is a new tactic for many House liberals, but they are tired of seeing centrists exercise outsized influence.
 
“If they’re not going to be a swing vote, they won’t have leverage,” said Burner, who said she would like to form a block of 12 committed liberals in the Senate, despite the reputation of independence among lawmakers in the upper chamber.