The Democrats lost the majority in the US House of Representatives in Tuesday’s midterm elections, but what is the makeup of the new Democratic House caucus? The conservative Blue Dogs lost half their members, while the Progressive Caucus remains near eighty. We speak to its co-chair, Rep. Raúl Grijalva, who appears to have retained his seat in a close election in Arizona’s 7th Congressional District. Over the past year, Grijalva has received numerous threats, including having a suspicious package covered in swastikas sent to his office and having a bullet shot through his district office in Yuma, Arizona. [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Just four years after Democrats swept control of Congress, Republicans took back control of the House of Representatives in dramatic fashion on Wednesday. With ten races still to be called, the Republicans have gained sixty House seats, giving them a wide majority of 239 to 186 for the Democrats.
The battle for leadership posts within the Republican-led GOP is already underway, and elections will take place within the party when Congress returns in two weeks. The top slots are not expected to be contested, with Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio almost certain to become Speaker of the House and Minority Leader Eric Cantor to become the new Majority Leader.
AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, on the other side of the aisle, the makeup of the Democratic caucus has also changed. The group most affected in the midterm elections is the conservative Blue Dog Democrats. The Blue Dog caucus was cut in half, going from fifty-four to twenty-six. At the same time, the seventy-nine-member Progressive Caucus lost about four members on Tuesday. This means progressives will make up a notably higher percentage of Democratic House members in the 112th Congress.
For more, we’re joined by the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Arizona Democrat Raúl Grijalva. He is in a very tight race right now, though appears to have edged it out with 3,900 votes against a Republican challenger named Ruth McClung, although McClung has refused to concede until all votes are counted. With 99 percent of the precincts reporting, Grijalva leads by about three percentage points. Over the past year, he has received a number of security threats, including a suspicious package covered in swastikas that had suspicious powder in it sent to his office, a bullet shot through his district office in Yuma.
Joining us now from Tucson, Arizona, well, welcome to Democracy Now!, Congressman Grijalva. You’ve been through a lot this year. What is the latest numbers right now? And have you already given your victory speech?
REP. RAÚL GRIJALVA: Yeah, I did give my victory speech on Election Night, and we’re up by about 4,000. There’s ballots to be counted, absentee ballots that were not counted on Election Day. We hope and we believe that in the areas that they’re coming from were areas in which we did well, and if that pattern continues, we will maintain the lead or build on it. So we — I think what I said Election Night, to be clear, I said, "Well, I go back to Congress not with a renewed sense of caution, but with a renewed sense of purpose."
And I think, given what the makeup of the House of Representatives is going to be, the role of the Progressive Caucus and progressive members, in general, is going to be beyond the role of loyal opposition to be ineffective and to assure that the legislative items that have to be challenged that the Republicans are going to bring up are also challenged by alternatives that are put together by progressives and Democrats. That lacked the last session, in which we compromised and watered down many, many important initiatives, and I think we paid the price for it.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Congressman, you — some are saying that you had such a tight race because of the high-profile positions you took in the battle over the Arizona "show me your papers" law, publicly calling initially for a boycott of your own state, and that that sort of rallied conservative forces both within the state and outside of the state to try to defeat you. Any regrets about the positions you took back then, or ideas about why the race became so close?
REP. RAÚL GRIJALVA: I think you’re correct. I think we got battered for about six months on the issue of the boycott, on the issue of not supporting 1070. And generally, the cauldron was this. You know, you had immigration, 1070 here, plus profile positions on other kinds of issues that I had taken, that created a good opportunity for people to coalesce, to try to make an example of, and so we knew around July how tough this race was going to be. And we prepared for it. And we’re going to be one of the survivors. But yeah, that issue was it, over and over and over again.
And do I regret it? I think strategically I could have done something differently or better, but at the moment, it was a personal decision that — not to let this law go quietly into the night, that we had to say something loud and bring attention to it. And I’m glad we did bring attention to it, because it is a bad law, and it’s not a good precedent, not just for Arizona, but for the country.
AMY GOODMAN: On the issue of immigration, three House members from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus — Congress members John Salazar of Colorado; Solomon Ortiz, Texas; Ciro Rodriguez, also Texas — lost their bids for reelection, meaning the pro-immigration reform wing of Congress will shrink next session. They were replaced by three anti-immigrant congressmen. Your response, Congress member Grijalva, in terms of where this means immigration reform will go?
REP. RAÚL GRIJALVA: I think it’s going to be difficult, very difficult. And I’ve told groups, prior to the election and since the election, that pro-immigrant groups, pro-immigrant rights groups, that we’re going to be fighting an uphill battle this whole session, that the Republican Party was lockstep opposed to it. You saw, even in the Senate, no action on the DREAM Act. I don’t see their position changing at all. And so, for us, it’s going to be an uphill battle. And I hope that this is one of the alternatives that’s presented by the Democratic Caucus, even if we have to do it in a more pragmatic way, in a piece-by-piece approach. But in terms of overall comprehensive reform, it’s going to be very difficult. I think we use this period of two years prior to the presidential election as a means to build public support and a public constituency for immigration reform and probably concentrate on that more than a legislative vehicle that I think is going to be very, very difficult.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And in the sense of the Democrats fighting the impact of whether they fought strong enough for immigration reform or not in terms of this election, clearly Harry Reid benefited dramatically by his outspokenness in support of immigration reform, because really the Latino vote in Nevada was the one that made — allowed him to survive against Sharron Angle. And yet, others who maybe were not as vocal as you or Harry Reid were, in terms of their stance, have ended up now paying the price, because the numbers and the percentages of Latinos who came out to vote has clearly dropped from — certainly from 2008, and really not much improvement from 2006.
REP. RAÚL GRIJALVA: Absolutely correct. In surviving this race that we had — that I had, there’s no question the Latino community threw the lifeline for me and is going to keep me in office. And I think we missed an opportunity maybe eighteen months ago to tackle the issue of immigration reform head-on as a party and build the kind of trust with the Latino community that’s not only needed for elections, but needed overall, and we didn’t do that.
And, you know, I find it kind of ironic that many of the pieces of legislation — immigration is a good example — that we did not take on was because we needed to protect vulnerable members of our caucus. And as you saw, the opposition to them was not any less, if we had or hadn’t. And you see by the losses that the biggest chunk of losses, huge chunk of losses, for the Democrats came out of that string of conservative Democrats that we spent two years trying to protect.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you about the Blue Dogs and the progressives. I mean, the progressive Democrats make up a significant percentage of Democrats overall now in Congress. They outnumber the Blue Dogs, who lost by half — they’re down to twenty-six — by some three times. And at the number around eighty, we’re talking about what? A little under a half of the Democrats are progressive Democrats.
REP. RAÚL GRIJALVA: Yeah, key to the progressive Democrats in Congress and to the Democratic Caucus is going to be the agenda that we coalesce around, the leadership that we coalesce around, and the fact that we stick together. There are issues that we have to stick together. When it comes to Bush’s — continuing the Bush tax cuts for the rich, we have to stick together. We have to stick together on the issue of privatization and of cutting benefits and raising retirement age for Social Security. We have to stick together. We have to stick together on job creation initiatives. And I think that will be the test for us. I think being able to coalesce around leadership and an agenda, I think, is going to make us very, very effective, not only as part of presenting alternatives to the Republican agenda, but within our own caucus to setting the table on the initiatives that we’re going to support.
With regards to the Blue Dogs, my point earlier, that we spent two years protecting the vulnerability of many of these members. We didn’t go with the public option. We didn’t do a big job creation bill. We didn’t roll back the Bush tax cuts, extend it to the middle class. We didn’t do — on and on and on. And now I think we’re not burdened with that vulnerability protection. I think we need to push forward. And I think the response by the American people for the minority party in this case is going to increase and increase, and I think that that support is going to be needed in 2012.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Congressman, I’d like to ask you, in terms of this battle over the agenda now that will occur not only in Congress, but obviously the administration — President Obama has to decide how he is going to move forward — one of the things I noted in the first few days before and after the election is this discussion of education reform as becoming the way that Republicans and the White House can work together. Haley Barbour talked about it, saying, "Hey, if you want to talk about charter schools or performance pay for teachers, the Republicans are ready to make deals." And Arne Duncan said similar things yesterday, that he believes that there’s room to move together, Democrats and Republicans, around education reform. Will the what some people consider the dismantling of public education become sort of the New Deal that the Obama administration tries to make with Republicans, as Bill Clinton tried after the 1994 elections to make welfare reform the way to win back some popularity? Is your sense that this is beginning to shape up this way?
REP. RAÚL GRIJALVA: Yeah, that’s my sense and also my concern, to be quite honest, in that, you know, we had an opportunity to reauthorize elementary and secondary education. We didn’t do that. Now we go back to a session in which the Republicans are going to control the Education and Labor Committee, of which I’m a member, and to deal with the issues that we already rejected. We told Secretary Duncan that his four prescriptions for fixing schools, which were essentially to privatize, close them — we rejected them as a caucus of that committee, as a Democratic caucus. I see those coming back on the table. And, you know, what essentially it does, it makes — when 80 to 90 percent of the kids going through school in this country are coming from urban and poor communities, and this is the time we invest in public education. So, yeah, I see that as a place where people are going to look at a common agenda between Republicans and the White House, but I also see it as a — it could be for public education — very, very slippery slope. And we have to be very cautious and very protective of public education as one of the agenda items.
AMY GOODMAN: Republican leaders are vowing to repeal the Democrats’ signature healthcare law. This is Ohio Republican John Boehner, again, expected to be the next Speaker of the House, speaking at his news conference yesterday.
REP. JOHN BOEHNER: I believe that the healthcare bill that was enacted by the current Congress will kill jobs in America, ruin the best healthcare system in the world, and bankrupt our country. That means that we have to do everything we can to try to repeal this bill and replace it with commonsense reforms that will bring down the cost of health insurance.
AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, President Obama delivered his first public comments on the election results Wednesday with a news conference at the White House. This is what he said about healthcare reform.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: You know, when I talk to a woman from New Hampshire who doesn’t have to mortgage her house because she got cancer and is seeking treatment but now is able to get health insurance, when I talk to parents who are relieved that their child with a preexisting condition can now stay on their policy until they’re twenty-six years old and give them the time to transition to find a job that will give them health insurance, or the small businesses that are now taking advantage of the tax credits that are provided, then I say to myself, this was the right thing to do.
Now, if the Republicans have ideas for how to improve our healthcare system, if they want to suggest modifications that would deliver faster and more effective reform to a healthcare system that has been wildly expensive for too many families and businesses and certainly for our federal government, I’m happy to consider some of those ideas.
AMY GOODMAN: There was President Obama at his news conference saying he took a shellacking and he was sorry to the Congress members who lost their jobs, their seats, as a result of these midterm elections. But Congress member Grijalva, what about healthcare?
REP. RAÚL GRIJALVA: I think that that’s going to be a very important battle line. There’s no question that we need to polish this healthcare reform bill. There are things in it that need to be changed, that need to be modified, as the President said. But the wholesale repeal of it is a huge mistake. Within that bill, for many communities, is issues of — attacking the issue of disparity, attacking the issue of equity when it comes to women and people of color, attacking the issue of Indian healthcare that had not been reauthorized in ten years. So when you broadly talk about repeal, you’re also talking about some significant gains that were made within that bill. If the Republicans want to talk about extending the benefit to more, we should be able to deal with that and talk about it. If they’re talking about modifications, of course. But if the issue is to undercut and sabotage any healthcare reform effort that we took in the last two years, then I think that needs to be a battle line.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. We’re joined by the Tucson Congress member Raúl Grijalva. He has probably just survived a very stiff challenge, though the counts are still coming in. His challenger says she will not concede until every last vote is counted. He is about up by 3,900 votes — Congress member Ruth McClung sic. We are going to, in addition to Congressman Grijalva, co-chair of the Progressive Caucus, be joined by Ryan Grim of Huffington Post, talking about Republican strategy in the next two years. This is Democracy Now! Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: Just a correction, Ruth McClung is not a Congress member, as far as we know, but she is a rocket scientist. I was wondering, Raúl Grijalva, if your ad was "Congress is not rocket science." Anyway, Juan?
REP. RAÚL GRIJALVA: No, but there was a lot of temptations, though.