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Progressive And Moderate Democrats Clash On Policies Heading Into 2021

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

House Democrats started this month hoping, preparing to gain seats in the election, but their once-robust majority in the House has now dwindled. As of today, they could be on track to begin next year with the slimmest majority in decades. And now members on the progressive left and party moderates are at odds over whose policies should drive the Democrats. Here's NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi returned to Washington after the election last week looking to celebrate victory for Democrats.

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NANCY PELOSI: We'll be able to do great things for the American people. As I said, we've lost some battles, but we won the war. We have the gavel.

SNELL: But there were a lot of lost battles, mostly in the majority-maker districts Democrats won in 2018 by defeating Republicans. Now Democrats are arguing both publicly and privately over why they lost and what they should do before they're on the ballot again in two years.

PRAMILA JAYAPAL: Because I think people are mourning the loss of some colleagues that wasn't as expected as it should have been.

SNELL: That's Pramila Jayapal. She's the co-chair of the House Progressive Caucus. She says Democrats simply lost House seats in areas where President Trump was and is popular. Jayapal says that's not the fault of progressive policies. Biden's victory, she says, is proof that it worked to drive home messages about how Democrats would deliver on progressive ideas, like "Medicare for All," a $15 minimum wage and aggressively curbing climate change.

JAYAPAL: And that's what we did over and over and over again that led to this huge turnout of young people, Black and brown and immigrant voters, that delivered us victories in these key states.

SNELL: But moderates say big progressive turnout in cities and suburbs may drive up Democrats' numbers in statewide and presidential races, but in their closely divided districts, some progressive messages can turn toxic. Abigail Spanberger was narrowly reelected in a Virginia district that went for Republicans from 1971 until she won in 2018. She says Democrats need to focus more on proactive messages and passing bills that speak to people, like funding for education and expanded rural broadband. And when it comes to big issues like police reform, she says Democrats need to stick to talking about policies, not slogans.

ABIGAIL SPANBERGER: People know what the verb defund means. And I have had people just across the spectrum say that they don't want to see our local police departments defunded.

SNELL: She says the police reform bill Democrats passed didn't defund the police, but that's the phrase that ran in Republican ads in districts where Democrats lost this year, like this ad against Max Rose, who lost his seat in New York.

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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) He promised us that he was going to support the police. And then he marched with people looking to defund the police.

SNELL: Messaging is not a new fight for Democrats. California Congressman Tony Cardenas, who's running to lead Democrats' House reelection effort in 2022, says members are getting the framing wrong.

TONY CARDENAS: I think that the emphasis of trying to hold on to a certain voter is the wrong place to start.

SNELL: He says it's about making sure that all of the legislation that happens from the moment Joe Biden is sworn in hits people at home and has translated in a way they understand. That's something most Democrats agree on. Next time they won't be running against President Trump. They'll be running on a record they plan to build with Biden. New York Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney, who's competing against Cardenas for that job, agreed. And he thinks that time and policies Democrats plan to pursue will make all the difference.

SEAN MALONEY: I also believe we'll be entering a cycle next time with the pandemic, God willing, in the rearview mirror and an economy that is in full rebound.

SNELL: But first, Democrats will have to decide which policies they vote on and whether they want to stick to areas where they agree or if they pit their different versions of the party against one another. Kelsey Snell, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAMMAL HANDS' "FLOATING WORLD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.