WASHINGTON – Ilhan Omar will be sworn into the U.S. House of Representatives at a time when liberal-leaning newcomers like her are pushing for more influence in shaping the party’s agenda.
Since the midterm elections, the Congressional Progressive Caucus has negotiated with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi for its members — particularly freshmen — to have more committee chairmanships and spots on powerful panels usually reserved for more seasoned members, such as Ways and Means.
This wave of enthusiasm is creating a big opening for incoming freshmen like Omar, who are usually relegated to less influential committee assignments. It’s also altering the dynamics of Congress, where the roughly 95 members of the new progressive caucus will have the largest voting bloc among House Democrats.
Omar was recently elected to a leadership role in the caucus, a position that will give her more influence, but that is nearly certain to draw more criticism.
“Top Democratic leaders have proactively sought conversations with Ilhan Omar and some other progressive stars to make sure that their views are firmly at the table,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which endorsed Omar. She attended the group’s legislative training in 2015. “I think it’s an acknowledgment that they have such a large voice and bully pulpit right now, and the ability to drive the national debate.”
Omar told the Star Tribune that her early priorities will include an infrastructure package — funding roads, bridges and broadband internet — and a measure that would institute publicly funded political campaigns and automatic voter registration. She’s also advocating for a proposed constitutional amendment to undo the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling that allows corporations and labor unions the right to spend unlimited money in political campaigns.
“For us, it’s really about making sure that the rules allow for us to be able to push our progressive agenda and have that become policy,” said Omar.
Omar, who served one term in the Legislature representing a diverse district in Minneapolis, is already striking out on a different path in Congress than the other new Democratic members from Minnesota, Dean Phillips and Angie Craig. They are members of the more moderate, pro-business New Democrat Coalition.
Omar will replace six-term U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, who is stepping down from Congress to become Minnesota’s next attorney general. Omar described Ellison as “like a big brother to me.”
Ellison said that when he entered Congress in 2007, the progressive caucus was a group of lawmakers who held similar ideals but didn’t act in a coordinated way to build relationships with their base and get other progressives elected. He helped strengthen the organization and served as co-chair in 2011 and 2017. The caucus meets at least weekly, has built relationships with activists and spent $1.3 million through its Progressive Action PAC this election cycle to help elect like-minded candidates.
“The progressive caucus is a stronger organization than ever before, and so [Omar] is going into an organization which is in a better position to set policy than ever before,” Ellison said.
Omar and other new progressives backed Pelosi’s bid for House speaker amid opposition from more centrist Democrats.
Ellison said he believes the progressive caucus will command the attention of leadership more than ever, but current political realities could make that a bumpy ride.
“Nancy may sincerely want to help the progressive agenda, but if she needs votes from [more conservative] Blue Dogs, she’s going to have to adjust, and that’s just the way it is, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” said Ellison.
During freshman orientation last month, Omar drew social media buzz with a photo on Instagram with three other incoming progressive women of color: Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan. It ran with the hashtag “squad,” signifying the greater diversity of the new class in Congress.
But some challenges are already emerging. Omar drew national attention for attacks on her Muslim faith. Her move to change a House rule so she could wear a hijab on the floor prompted the Rev. E.W. Jackson to say that the floor of Congress would look like an Islamic republic.
“I am much more interested in defending my ideas than defending my identities,” said Omar.
Some freshman lawmakers have already formed political alliances because they represent similar constituencies, “and some of us who are ‘firsts’ also have this camaraderie and solidarity built into the struggle of trying to have our voices be heard, so there is a really amazing vibe happening with the freshman class,” Omar said.
Omar is already taking interest in additional issues, like pushing to address soaring student debt, gun control legislation and a larger campaign to expand Medicare coverage. It’s a daunting agenda, full of issues that have stymied far more seasoned members of Congress.
There’s a push “to make sure that we have members within the freshman class represented in the powerful, exclusive committees, and I think there is a huge possibility that we’re going to have real successes,” said Omar.
“Not everyone is in lockstep on every issue, but when you have that many members, that’s a very powerful block and you can really influence legislation that will hit the floor,” said U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, a Wisconsin Democrat who’s co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
While Omar’s top issues might fuse nicely with the interests of other Democrats, they face a formidable wall of opposition from Republicans.
“Our major problem isn’t fellow Democrats,” said Pocan. “Our major problem is going to be a Republican Senate and a Republican White House.”