A Kentucky progressive finds himself in the middle of the House

Rep. John Yarmuth is a lifetime liberal but today finds himself feeling like a moderate in a Congress that’s just had a fresh infusion of progressive lawmakers.

Some of the newcomers were irked that Yarmuth, who has co-sponsored a House “Medicare for All” act since he was first elected in 2006, stopped short of embracing the most expansive of the plans that call for universal health care.

And last week, a massive Yarmuth-authored federal budget bill setting priorities for the next fiscal year collapsed amid criticism largely from progressives who want domestic programs to receive just as much money as the military.

“It used to be I was ranked like the 40th most liberal member in the House,” Yarmuth, the sole Democrat in the Kentucky congressional delegation, mused to reporters outside the House chamber.

Now, he quipped, “I’m feeling very moderate these days!”

As a member of House leadership — he chairs the House Budget Committee and leads the budget negotiations — Yarmuth is finding himself whipsawed between the desire of leadership to govern and progressives’ intent to stick to the oft left-of-center stances they say got them elected.

Former Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Steve Womack, an Arkansas Republican who experienced similar pushback from the House’s conservative Freedom Caucus, commiserates, Yarmuth said.

“He just keeps laughing, and he says, ‘I feel your pain, I feel your pain,’ ” Yarmuth said.

In the face of opposition from both progressives and moderates, House Democratic leaders last week scrapped plans to vote on a two-year budget blueprint that would have increased both military and domestic spending.

Yarmuth had pitched the plan, noting that the increase for non-defense spending would be twice as large as that for defense and that it would also soften automatic spending cuts that otherwise would slash defense and non-defense spending.

By passing the legislation, “We in the House will be doing our jobs, following regular order, and ensuring we can meet the needs and priorities of our families and communities,” Yarmuth told his colleagues.

There’s certainly a strong urge among progressives to reflect the priorities of our base and that’s not unhealthy

But progressive members were unhappy with the level of defense funding and conservative Blue Dog Democrats raised concern that spending levels overall were too high.

Democratic leaders canceled the vote, though the House did approve a limit of $1.3 trillion to help House appropriators write individual spending bills for fiscal year 2020. The House just didn’t specify how much could be spent on defense and how much on domestic programs.

“There’s certainly a strong urge among progressives to reflect the priorities of our base and that’s not unhealthy,” Yarmuth said.

Republicans were quick to pounce, with Womack charging Democrats with “punting on one of our most basic responsibilities in Congress.”

Though progressives said that the situation could have been resolved had Democratic leaders reached out to them earlier, few faulted Yarmuth, himself a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

“They started a process without checking with all members and clearly many of us said ‘Why wouldn’t you go in with a stronger negotiating process?” said Rep. Mark Pocan, a Wisconsin Democrat.

Pocan said Yarmuth frequently attends progressive caucus meetings.

“When he came he kept saying, ‘I’m with you, I agree with you,’” Pocan said. “I know his values are there. There’s not a question.”

“He’s in a difficult position,” Rep. Ro Khanna, a California Democrat and the caucus’s first vice chair, said of Yarmuth and the tension between progressives and leadership.

Yarmuth expressed skepticism of “Medicare for All” plans such as those proposed by Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, which would provide universal health care on demand with no consumer contribution.

Yarmuth’s view infuriated groups like the Louisville chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.

The chapter tweeted a warning in February that Yarmuth could find himself in the same situation as former Democratic Caucus Chair Rep. Joe Crowley, a New York Democrat who lost his 2018 Democratic primary to self-professed Democratic socialist Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

“If someone wants to primary me, it’s fine,” said Yarmuth, who wears a red button with an “F” on his lapel to reflect his National Rifle Association voting record. “I think I have a very good relationship with my district and with the vast majority of Democratic voters.”

Ocasio-Cortez has lent her support to Yarmuth on at least one of his initiatives. She’s a co-sponsor of his bill that would halt all new mountaintop coal removal mining permits until federal officials investigate potential health effects.

Still, the division among House Democrats threatens to undercut their leverage in budget negotiations with the Republican-run Senate and the White House.

It also invites parallels to the House Freedom Caucus battles against Republican House leadership throughout the 2010s. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — the Kentucky Republican who Yarmuth has known since 1968 — suggested as much to reporters in an interview last week. House Democrats’ failure to pass a budget, McConnell said, demonstrates House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California has her own Freedom Caucus.

Khanna called the Freedom Caucus comparison misguided and said progressives won’t be as disruptive. The Freedom Caucus, he said, “had a loud voice, but Democrats got elected because we want to see government work and we don’t want to see people’s faith in democracy diminished.

“I believe defense should be frozen at 2019 levels, but if you told me ‘OK, if you don’t vote for this you’re going to shut down the government, I’d never shut down the government,” Khanna said.

Still, Yarmuth cautioned that the progressive caucus might not get nearly as much as it wants with McConnell announcing that he and Pelosi had agreed to begin negotiating a new two-year deal to raise budget caps.

“I thought this (the budget proposal) would have been a more effective way to gain leverage,” he said, even as he added, “But with McConnell, the speaker and the White House initiating negotiations, we are where we need to be.”

Lesley Clark works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, covering all things Kentucky for McClatchy’s Lexington Herald-Leader. A former reporter for McClatchy’s Miami Herald, she also spent several years covering the White House.