After a bitter internal fight over an immigration bill last June, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi famously dismissed the power, or lack thereof, of the Squad—the semi-official name for the four new left-wing lawmakers shaking up Capitol Hill.
“They’re four people,” Pelosi told the New York Times’ Maureen Dowd, “and that’s how many votes they got.”
The speaker’s slight was not soon forgotten among the left; in fact, some took it as a challenge to prove her wrong. A year later, at least one prominent member of the Squad is looking at the results and warning Democratic leadership that, soon, it’ll have more than just four outspoken members of its leftmost flank to contend with.
“People said, you know, Squad’s just a couple votes,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) told The Daily Beast last week. “And I said, all right, let's go get more. And so, we're getting more votes, we're getting more people.”
Indeed, come January 2021, new lawmakers are set to arrive in Congress with very similar values and politics to the Squad members—Ocasio-Cortez and Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), and Ayanna Pressley (D-MA)—having won their own tough races after securing endorsements from those very members. For one, Jamaal Bowman, a former public school teacher who challenged longtime Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), has a near-insurmountable lead in that primary race’s vote tally; and one district to the north, attorney Mondaire Jones has jumped out to a similarly commanding lead in the crowded race to succeed Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY). Both of their New York City-area districts are so overwhelmingly Democratic that if, as expected, they prevail in their primaries, GOP opposition in November will be nominal.
Both likely lawmakers-to-be are young, hold staunchly left-wing positions, and campaigned vowing to shake up the normal order of things for Democrats—all qualities that have made them fast stars in the progressive wing of the party, and qualities that would certainly put them in good company in the Squad.
In interviews, Bowman and Jones had effusive praise for Squad members and made clear that they’d be close allies on matters of politics—like making Medicare For All and a Green New Deal a priority—and of tactics, as the left increasingly hopes to use voting leverage to play legislative hardball.
“Man, I’ve been down with the Squad since Day 1,” Bowman told The Daily Beast, who said it’d be an “honor, humbling, a pleasure” to work closely with the Squad on Capitol Hill. “I embrace it fully, and I look forward to getting started.”
Jones, meanwhile, told The Daily Beast that “I’m not going to Congress to be part of any faction that may exist,” and said there’s “great diversity even within the Squad, as it’s been defined by pundits.” But he said he envisioned working closely with them, and with the broader House Progressive Caucus, to get legislation passed.
Regardless of whether they officially embrace the Squad mantle, the ascent of figures like Bowman and Jones—as well as other progressives set to take office next year—speaks to the steady growth of the movement that put figures like Ocasio-Cortez in office in the first place.
Elsewhere, a candidate backed by the left-wing group Justice Democrats, Marie Newman, successfully unseated centrist Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-IL) in a primary and is a near-lock to head to Congress next year. (Newman’s campaign did not respond to an interview request.) In Massachusetts, which holds its primary in September, Holyoke mayor Alex Morse is hoping to defeat the powerful Rep. Richard Neal (D-MA) in a highly-watched race, and progressive candidates are vying to take the seat being vacated by Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-MA).
Democrats who share the Pelosi view believe the insurgents are still far from being a force on Capitol Hill, noting that they lose far more legislative battles, and primaries, than they win. To progressives, however, adding even a couple more votes will give them increased power to set the agenda and influence legislation—even more so if they retain the House while Joe Biden wins the presidency and Democrats flip the Senate in November.
Asked if that scenario had crossed his mind, Bowman said, “Hell yes, it has crossed my mind, and I’m super-excited about it. This is the moment to make the Green New Deal a reality.”
To progressives off Capitol Hill, the new additions are exciting, too. If Bowman and Jones join with the Squad in being willing to leverage their votes and potentially block bills under a President Biden and a Democratic Senate, “they can pass things,” said Max Berger, a progressive strategist. “That’s potentially a lot of power. I don’t think anyone has a strategy or brand around it yet, but the fact that the votes are potentially there is the story.”
The Squad itself wasn’t exactly born out of a prepared plan or strategy to begin with, either. It grew out of an Instagram post from Ocasio-Cortez—just the four lawmakers and the caption, “squad”—and turned into an alliance forged by common political values, fueled by media coverage and fascination with a new generation of politicians, and defined by routine attacks from President Donald Trump and his supporters that looped them together.
As the Squad brand solidified in the media and on Capitol Hill, members insisted it was roomy enough for anyone, but those on the outside have sometimes felt otherwise. Last month, the four formed a joint fundraising committee, dubbed the Squad Victory Fund, to help aid their re-elections—perhaps the most official move to solidify the group they’ve yet taken.
While the original four might have a unique status, on a core commonality of the squad—a willingness to buck party leadership—Jones and Bowman are very much simpatico. Both told The Daily Beast that progressives should be far more willing to use their votes to make or break legislation than they already are, a tactical question that left-leaning lawmakers have struggled with since Democrats took the majority last year.
“As someone who’s going to be part of a growing group of progressives in the House, I think progressives have to be flexing their muscles and withholding support from bills that should be a lot better for the American people,” said Jones, who mentioned last year’s prescription drug legislation—in which progressives secured concessions after threatening to pull support—as a concrete example of that.
If bills come up that don’t meet the needs of constituents, said Bowman, “we can’t vote for that. We’re not going to play insider politics while ignoring the needs of people in our districts, that’s not going to happen.”
Both said that they would have voted in favor of the $2 trillion CARES Act, despite concerns over its billions of dollars in relief to corporations, in order to get quick help to struggling people, but both also said that they believe subsequent COVID relief bills would have to be much more progressive.
Such an approach will please operatives like Berger, who have been itching to see more legislative hardball from the progressive ranks over the last year and a half. Though there are nearly a hundred members of the Progressive Caucus, they hardly function as a bloc, and have been outflanked by moderate Democrats at times. Last year, a smaller faction of moderates used their leverage to pressure Pelosi to advance a GOP-preferred $5 billion bill for the southern border crisis, which lacked spending restrictions in a competing bill progressives backed.
While most progressives don’t believe they need to exactly copy the tactics of the conservative House Freedom Caucus—which routinely used its 40-some members as leverage to make or break legislation, infuriating but usually cowing GOP leadership—the arrival of like-minded additions means they can at least give it a try.
“There’s an acknowledged need for some kind of entity that's more than four people but less than however many people who are in the Progressive Caucus,” said Berger. “That there are now more members certainly makes it a lot more possible.”
Squad members, like Ocasio-Cortez, say they’ve been preparing for that very moment, setting small benchmarks in bills over the last year that would set a higher floor for 2021, if and when reinforcements arrive. “I have been very quietly breaking up parts of the Green New Deal and putting them in legislation,” Ocasio-Cortez said, adding that she fought, successfully, to include in the last COVID relief package expanded benefits for undocumented immigrants working essential jobs, in order to establish a policy high-watermark for the future.
“We have been very quietly but very steadily pushing precedent into these packages that are perhaps a little bit more than some of the caucus wants, but we've been getting wins in these packages that I think are very easily overlooked in the day to day news cycle,” she said. “That will make it very difficult, should we—knock on wood—take the Senate and take the White House, that they will not necessarily be able to move back.”
Ocasio-Cortez, whose win in 2018 over a powerful Democratic incumbent was a galvanizing moment for the movement, also said she’s been talking to some of the incoming likely members, offering advice on everything from when congressional paychecks arrive to how to staff an office. “At least what I've been imparting,” she said, “is trying to make sure that they don't have to reinvent the wheel, per se.”
Jones told The Daily Beast that Ocasio-Cortez is one of many lawmakers giving him good advice. Asked what committees he might be interested in serving on—a major source of interest for a new member, Squad or otherwise—he demurred. “I’d been advised,” he said, “that can be used against me.”