Rep. Barbara Lee

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–The success of Democrats in this year’s midterm elections is often attributed to the rising influence of the conservative wing of the party.

But women’s rights activists say that progressives–and progressive women in particular–are in fact enjoying a much stronger power surge.

The Blue Dog Coalition, for instance, is a group of fiscally conservative Democrats whose numbers will grow by nine next year, bringing total membership to 44, or about a fifth of the House Democratic conference. Top priorities for the caucus has been pushing to balance the federal budget and lowering the federal debt.

But Denise Baer, president of Strategic Research Concepts, a political consulting firm in Bethesda, Md., said that the Blue Dog Coalition’s numbers don’t compare to the strength of the progressive or women’s caucuses.

“We heard a lot about the Blue Dog Democrats being the largest caucus in the House of Representatives,” Baer said at a post-election news conference last week. “The Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues is really going to be the largest caucus . . . So women are going to be leaders.”

The prime symbol of the new clout of progressives and women is Nancy Pelosi of California, a former member of the Democrats’ Congressional Progressive Caucus, who will occupy the most powerful seat in the legislative branch of government when she takes over as Speaker of the House in January.

As Pelosi moves on, however, the Congressional Progressive Caucus, will attain new stature as the largest ideological group within the new majority party, noted Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation in Arlington, Va.

A caucus is a group of like-minded lawmakers who meet to promote shared legislative goals. Caucus leaders use their ability to deliver unified voting blocs to exert pressure on congressional leaders and to influence the legislative agenda.

Women Could Lead Largest Ideological Bloc

Two women–California Democrats Barbara Lee and Lynn Woolsey–currently chair the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and both are seeking re-election to lead the caucus in the 110th Congress. If they win, they will hold sway over the largest ideological voting blocs in the House of Representatives.

Other caucuses may count more members, but most have less influence because they push a narrow, single-issue agenda. The Congressional Sportsman’s Foundation, for example, claims more than 300 members but only promotes legislation in support of hunting, fishing and conservation. The Congressional Progressive Caucus, by contrast, addresses issues ranging from health care to jobs and the economy to national security.

The progressive caucus currently claims 64 members, and has identified eight potential new members who may join in January, when the 110th Congress convenes. That means the caucus could control roughly a third of the House Democratic conference.

As chairs, Lee said she and Woolsey bring sensitivity to women’s issues. Both mothers who raised their children with the help of federal welfare payments, Lee said she and Woolsey will push for increased funding for child care and allowing women on welfare to pursue higher education. “As women, we added value,” Lee said in an interview.

Another California Democrat, Lois Capps, is in line to co-chair another major caucus with growing influence, the Democratic Women’s Working Group, which lists 42 members (not including three non-voting female delegates) and could add as many as 13 more women next year. That would bring the total membership to nearly a quarter of all House Democrats.  Rep. Lois Capps

The caucus uses its membership to express the concerns of women, weighing in on such issues as funding cuts to federal programs that aid low-income women; efforts to partly privatize Social Security, which disproportionately aids women because they tend to live longer than men but earn less over their lifetimes; and legislation to address the lack of pay parity between men and women.

Capps also hopes to become the next co-chair of one of the largest bipartisan groups in Congress: the Congressional Caucus of Women’s Issues. With at least 71 female members, it focuses on women’s issues that have a more bipartisan appeal such as increased funding for women’s health, incentives for female business owners and programs that aid women who are victims of domestic violence. Capps is currently a vice co-chair, along with Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida.

Growing Clout for Bipartisan Women

The bipartisan women’s caucus “has the potential of having much more clout in the future,” Baer said. The group’s ranks have grown, she said, and she predicted its agenda would become more progressive in a Congress controlled by Democrats.

Several other progressive women will chair congressional committees, including the powerful House and Senate Rules panels, which set the parameters of debate and determine the number and kind of amendments that may be attached to legislation. Rep. Louise Slaughter of New York and Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California will take their chambers’ rules gavels next year.

“The Rules Committee is where so much of our legislation has been tied up–and screwed up–for years now,” Kim Gandy, president of the Washington-based National Organization for Women, said in an interview. “To have women who are feminists and supporters of women’s rights chairing the Rules Committees in both houses of Congress will really be a sea change. There are no guarantees, but we’re no longer guaranteed to have everything blocked.”

The gains by progressive Democratic women follow an election in which the party’s two campaign chairs–Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois and Sen. Charles Schumer of New York–actively sought out a number of fiscally and socially conservative candidates to run in moderate districts and states.

The party, for instance, helped clear the Senate primary field for Pennsylvania Democrat Bob Casey who opposes abortion and same-sex marriage and Representative-elect Heath Shuler of North Carolina, who opposes abortion and gun control.

Softened Abortions Stances in Some Fields

But seven of the eight newly elected Democratic senators support abortion rights, something not mentioned often in most news reports, Smeal noted in a post-election telephone news conference last week. And there are 22 new pro-choice members of the House, added Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who also spoke at the teleconference.

Women are already beginning to see the effects of the new composition of Congress.

Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid–an anti-choice Democrat from Nevada–have laid out an agenda for the first 100 hours of the 110th Congress that female lawmakers and activists say will benefit women.

Near the top of that plan–known as Six for ’06–is a bill that would increase the minimum wage to $7.25 an hour. That, women’s rights advocates say, will have a disproportionate effect on women because they are more likely than men to work at minimum wage.

At a minimum, women’s rights activists are simply relieved that they are no longer on the legislative defensive.

Republicans, for example, will have a much more difficult time enacting more restrictions on abortion, a strategy they pushed successfully in the GOP-controlled Congress when they passed bills such as a far-reaching abortion ban that has been stymied by legal challenges and a measure that would make it a crime to transport pregnant minors across state lines to circumvent state parental notification laws.

“One of the best things is we won’t have all this negative legislation,” said Smeal, who said much of lawmakers’ time was taken up with “horrible bills” pushed by social conservatives. “So at least that stops.”

Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief at Women’s eNews.

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For more information:

Congressional Progressive Caucus:

Democratic Working Women’s Group:

Congressional Caucus on Women’s Issues:

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