How do you constructively say “no?” This week, the increasingly powerful Congressional Progressive Caucus was confronted with this question by tensions between Democrats over two central bills on President Joe Biden’s agenda. It involved a bipartisan bill to improve infrastructure and a budget of $3.5 trillion to finance sweeping social reforms.
The standoff highlights both the challenge and opportunity that progressives have to face. The two sides seek new influence for the greatest benefit of both their voters and party members, while avoiding any backlash which could harm either. They could also damage the Biden administration.
In an era of deepening political polarization both sides have to deal with more feisty wings. This bill outlines how Democrats manage their infrastructure.
” It would be devastating if they lost this bill,” Matthew Glassman is a Senior Fellow at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute. He adds that if the bills are passed, Democrats can boast a number of accomplishments in future campaigns.
Many consider themselves and the country to be at pivotal moments in which government must step up and assist. And they believe their policies could energize the Democratic base and prevent a Republican resurgence at the polls in next year’s midterm elections and the 2024 presidential race.
But, if they underestimate the nation’s desire for these sweeping reforms at a time where Democrats hold the Senate and House by a narrow margin, this could harm their goals and the agenda of President Biden.
At the beginning of this critical week for Democrats Speaker Nancy Pelosi walked out of Congress with her arms around Rep. Ilhanomar, more like friends than political figures engaged in high-stakes negotiations.
It was a scene you wouldn’t have believed not too long ago when Speaker Nancy Pelosi issued a rare, public rebuke to the Minnesota lawmaker who, during her three-year tenure in Congress, has had an arduous relationship not just with Donald Trump, but with her party as well.
But, Representative Omar also serves as the whip for the Congressional Progressive Caucus. This caucus is responsible for ensuring that its members are able to vote. This caucus, which was once marginalized by House Democrats but now represents nearly half of them today, gives it considerable leverage.
In an era of deepening political polarization both sides have to deal with more shrewd wings. This bill outlines how Democrats manage their infrastructure.
Late Thursday afternoon, Ms. Omar and fellow progressives were holding firm in their threat to torpedo a vote on the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that had passed the Senate with full Democratic support and 19 Republicans. Although progressives are willing to support the bill, they want to get moderate Senate Democrats to back their huge Build Back Better Act. This includes radical social reforms as well as climate change legislation.
The standoff highlights both the challenge and opportunity that progressives face now. The two sides are trying to use their newly found influence for the best benefit of both their voters as well as their party without provoking a backlash which could harm either. They could also damage the Biden administration.
” “It would have a devastating effect if they lost this,” Matthew Glassman is a Senior Fellow at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute. Conversely, he adds, if both bills pass, it could offer Democrats a significant list of achievements to tout in their 2022 and 2024 campaigns.
Many consider themselves and the country to be at pivotal moments in which government must step in and assist. And they believe their policies could energize the Democratic base and prevent a Republican resurgence at the polls in next year’s midterm elections and the 2024 presidential race.
If they underestimate the nation’s desire for these sweeping reforms at a time where Democrats hold the Senate and House by a narrow margin, this could harm their goals and the agenda of President Joe Biden.
The caucus’ willingness to stop one of President Obama’s top priorities, even temporarily, has been compared to the GOP’s conservative Freedom Caucus. Members’ efforts to encourage small government and fiscal discipline have often bedevilled their party’s leadership in the last decade. This has led to Republican legislation regarding health care, immigration and government shutdowns.
Progressives, not surprisingly, reject that comparison. They claim they are not trying to undermine the Democratic Party’s leadership or disrupt its operations, but rather to have a positive influence on it.
“We want government to function fully on behalf of the citizens,” states Representative Omar. Representative Omar says, “We are for advocating that government fully function on behalf of the people.”
Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington testifies about her decision to have an abortion, on Sept. 30, 2021, during a House hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. Jayapal is the leader of her party’s Progressive Caucus and rejects any comparisons to the Republican Freedom Caucus. “
Despite their optimism, the Democratic leadership may privately disagree with Jayapal’s conclusion. As the current impasse drags on for longer, there is a greater chance that Senate moderates will respond to leftist hardball tactics and simply walk out of budget negotiations.
A big-tent party
The Build Back Better bill would deliver on many progressive priorities. The bill includes everything from increased health care benefits to paid maternity leave, as well as free community college tuition and measures to combat climate change. A poll commissioned by progressives showed that 54% of voters in 10 battleground states supported the $3.5 trillion bill, compared with 43% who disapproved. There was a margin for error of 4.5 percentages in the poll.
Democrats intend to pass the bill via a process called budget reconciliation. They will still need to get the support of all Senate Democrats. On Wednesday, Sen. Joe Manchin from West Virginia said that it was “fiscal absurdity” for them to spend so much after already large amounts of money being spent by the government to combat pandemic-related expenses.
He and Democratic Senator Kyrsten Sinema from Arizona who worked to negotiate the bipartisan infrastructure bill had not submitted any counter-proposals until Thursday. A memo leaked that showed that Senator Manchin told President Obama this summer his top line was $1.5 billion. The Democrat from West Virginia also said any expansion of Medicaid in the reconciliation bill would have to include the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal funds from being used to cover abortion expenses.
So on the last day of fiscal year 2021, Democratic leadership was facing an unenviable trio of challenges: passing a bipartisan infrastructure bill; scrambling to fund the government temporarily to avoid a partial shutdown (this bill cleared Congress late Thursday); and raising the debt ceiling before Oct. 18, when Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen warned all extraordinary measures would be exhausted and the United States would default on its debt.
” “We are a big-tent political party and we will get it done,” stated Rep. Josh Gottheimer earlier in the week, who is the moderate Democratic cochair of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus. Speaking to progressives’ role, he added, “I think they’ve been very constructive in our conversations.”
“They’re stiffening their spine”
In the past, Democratic leadership has tended to cater to party centrists, who often hail from swing districts or states and face tough reelection battles. Sometimes, this has led to the removal of progressive priorities from Democratic legislation.
But progressives are growing in number and gaining more influence within the party, so they have become bolder in asserting their needs.
” They’re stiffening the spine,” said Professor Glassman from Georgetown.
Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont talks to reporters ahead of a test vote on the bipartisan infrastructure deal that senators brokered with President Joe Biden, on Capitol Hill in Washington, July 21, 2021. Senator Sanders urged other progressives to make sure that the passage of the infrastructure bill is linked to the passing of a budget that includes new funding for climate change and health care.
One reason may be that Democratic voters have moved to the left over recent years. Some of that may be credited to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the first chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which he co-founded in 1991 with five other representatives. Back then, the democratic socialist who embraced a crusader role saw very few of his proposed laws passed.
But, after two very successful presidential campaigns which attracted legions of young supporters to the Democratic Party and perhaps shifted the center point of gravity within the party, Senator Sanders (now chairman of the Senate Budget Committee) and his aides find themselves in an entirely different situation.
Many progressives are pointing out the President Biden agenda, not theirs, that they are fighting for. Jayapal stated that this agenda was not a fringe list. It is President Biden’s agenda.
“Whether it was the primary campaign, or whether this is where [Mr. Biden’s] heart always has been, he has genuinely adopted a lot of progressive goals,” says Rep. Ro Khanna of California, who co-chaired Mr. Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign. “And so we have supported the president.”
“We had a deal”
Now the president is in a bind, however, with progressives vowing not to support the infrastructure bill unless or until Senate Democrats commit to the much larger reconciliation bill. These bills contain a lot of President Trump’s domestic agenda. He has hosted a series of meetings to convince the various wings to join him.
Senator Sanders is the only member of the Senate from the Congressional Progressive Caucus. He has been urging members of his caucus to not support the infrastructure bill until it’s passed. He said that they had reached a “deal” and that both bills would be advancing in tandem to ensure passage.
As such, the refusal of progressives to support one infrastructure bill prior to another is approved on may be seen by DeWayne Lucas (associate professor of political science at Hobart Colleges and William Smith Colleges), as an attempt to keep their promises.
” Their main concern is that they have made deals with moderates,” Professor Lucas says, noting the fact that, in past times, when there were fewer progressives, other Democrats did not always honor such agreements. “Now, one of the problems for the progressive caucus it how to make sure that they get what is promised to them,” he says. Senator Sinema may also be disrupting the “mavericks” style of Arizona.
Grandstand activists are a major reason why progressives have remained steadfast. Today, Senator Manchin addressed reporters and said he was open to supporting a budget of $1.5 trillion. This is a quarter off the original $6 trillion Senator Sanders wanted.
“This $3.5 trillion package is already the compromise,” said David Winston, cochair of “Medicare For All” group of metro D.C. Democratic Socialists of America. He wore a Sanders shirt. Fellow protesters held a pink heart with the handwritten slogan, “Invest in people not war” and a large banner reading, “No reconciliation, no deal!”
Staff writer Dwight Weingarten contributed reporting.