The status quo won for the most part in congressional leadership elections Thursday, but some signs point to a Democratic minority party that will push more aggressively for progressive policies in the face of hard-right Republican lawmaking.
Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) was unanimously elevated from Senate minority leader to majority leader, which will allow him to bring up controversial bills like a 20-week abortion ban or partial repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-MD) is expected to continue as House minority leader, though the House Democrats’ election is next week.
Get the facts, direct to your inbox.
Want more Rewire.News? Get the facts, direct to your inbox.
And although he faced vocal opposition from several moderate or right-leaning members of his party like Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Joe Manchin (D-WV), and Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) stayed on as the leader of the Senate Democrats.
Reid signaled that his reign won’t necessarily be business as usual when he created a new leadership position for progressive favorite Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Congress’ foremost critic of right-wing economic policies and the lending industry.
Warren will serve as strategic policy adviser to the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee. She will help to craft the party’s policy priorities, and will ensure that the concerns of progressive and liberal Democrats are heard. The Democratic leadership team will now include four women, with the addition of Warren and with Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar filling the position formerly held by Alaska’s Mark Begich.
Warren pushed back at the media-popularized notion that her role will be that of “liberal liaison,” because her discussions with Reid focused around policy. And as David Firestone noted in The New York Times, that framing “sounds a bit like an ambassador to a distant country.”
But it’s hard to ignore Warren’s status as a hero to many progressives, some of whom want her to challenge Hillary Clinton from the left in the Democratic primary election.
Reid’s office has made no secret of his intentions to advocate for progressive policies that are popular with voters, like raising the minimum wage, instating paid leave, and protecting reproductive rights.
“If the ballot measure results are any indication, actual progressive policies remain popular with voters in red and blue states,” a senior advisor to Reid told the Huffington Post. “I believe you’ll see a Senate Democratic caucus fight on behalf of those policies and provide the votes if and when Republicans are ready to act.”
As if to underline the point about popular support for progressive policies, while the leadership elections were going on inside the Capitol, federal contract employees went on strike for the ninth time, walking off their food service jobs inside the Capitol Visitor Center to gather outside the building.
The strikes, sponsored by the labor-backed organization Good Jobs Nation, also attracted support from labor advocates and several members of Congress.
The workers already won a major policy victory when President Obama signed executive orders mandating a $10.10 minimum wage for employees of federal contractors and getting tougher on labor law violations.
Employees are now pushing harder, calling for a $15 an hour living wage and the right to form a union, much like the demands of fast-food and Walmart workers in the “Fight for 15” campaign.
“President Obama took bold steps by increasing the minimum wage for federal contract workers and stepping up compliance for law-breaking contractors,” Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), who spoke at the rally, said in a statement. “The president knows when the federal government leads the private sector follows. We hope he will take more bold action to reward federal contractors who treat their employees fairly and give workers a seat at the table to negotiate wages and benefits.”
Executive orders on issues like jobs policy and immigration are still likely to be the best route for progressive policymaking in the next two years of a Republican Congress.