Are progressives the bloc of ‘no’? They say no.

Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters
Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi walk down the steps before taking a photo with a bipartisan group of lawmakers to honor National Recovery Month at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Sept. 27, 2021. Representative Omar is the whip of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which has been gaining in influence.

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How do you say “no” constructively? The increasingly influential Congressional Progressive Caucus faced that question this week as tensions among Democrats mounted over two bills central to President Joe Biden’s agenda: a bipartisan infrastructure bill and a $3.5 trillion budget to fund sweeping social reforms.

The standoff underscores both the opportunity and challenge that progressives face. They seek to exercise newfound influence to the maximum benefit of their voters and their party, without sparking a backlash that could hurt both. And damage the Biden administration.

Why We Wrote This

Amid deepening polarization, both parties have had to contend with increasingly feisty wings. The infrastructure bill shows how Democrats are managing theirs.

“It would be a huge blow if this just collapsed on them,” says Matthew Glassman, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute in Washington. Conversely, he adds, if both bills pass, Democrats could tout a significant list of achievements in their upcoming campaigns.

Many see themselves, and the country, as standing at a pivotal moment in which government has a moral responsibility to step in and help. 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 overestimate the country’s appetite for such sweeping reforms, at a time when Democrats only narrowly control the House and Senate, it could damage their own goals and President Biden’s agenda. 

At the start of this crucial week for Democrats, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Ilhan Omar walked out of the House of Representatives with arms wrapped around each other, looking more like longtime pals than politicians engaged in a high-stakes negotiation. 

It’s a scene that would have been hard to imagine not long ago, when the speaker issued a rare public rebuke of the Minnesota lawmaker, who during her three years in Congress has tangled not only with then-President Donald Trump but also with her own party. 

But Representative Omar is also the whip of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, responsible for corralling its members when it comes time to vote. And that caucus has grown dramatically from a once-marginal group to nearly half of House Democrats today, giving it significant leverage. 

Why We Wrote This

Amid deepening polarization, both parties have had to contend with increasingly feisty wings. The infrastructure bill shows how Democrats are managing theirs.

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. Though progressives have agreed to support that bill, they aim to force moderate Senate Democrats to first back their massive Build Back Better Act, which includes sweeping social reforms and climate change measures.

The standoff underscores both the opportunity and challenge that progressives now face. They are seeking to exercise their newfound influence to the maximum benefit of their voters and their party, without sparking a backlash that could hurt both. And damage the Biden administration.

“It would be a huge blow if this just collapsed on them,” says Matthew Glassman, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute in Washington. 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 see themselves, and the country, as standing at a pivotal moment in which government has a moral responsibility to step in and help. 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 overestimate the country’s appetite for such sweeping reforms, at a time when Democrats only narrowly control the House and Senate, it could damage their own goals and President Joe Biden’s agenda. 

The caucus’s willingness to block one of the president’s key priorities – even temporarily – has led to comparisons with the GOP’s conservative Freedom Caucus. In members’ effort to promote small government and fiscal discipline, they frequently bedeviled their party’s leadership over the past decade, dooming Republican legislation on health care and immigration, and provoking government shutdowns. 

Progressives, not surprisingly, reject that comparison. They insist they’re not seeking to disrupt the Democratic Party or undermine its leadership, but to influence it in a constructive way.

“We are for advocating for government to fully function on behalf of the people,” says Representative Omar. “Our role here is to try to remind our caucus that if we say we are the party of the people and of working families, then our policies should reflect that.”

Or as Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington, who heads the Progressive Caucus, put it: “The Freedom Caucus is a caucus of no; we’re a caucus of yes.” 

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
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. Representative Jayapal, who heads her party's Progressive Caucus, rejects comparisons with the Republican Freedom Caucus, saying it "is a caucus of no; we’re a caucus of yes."

Still, for all their projected optimism, Democratic leadership might privately disagree with Representative Jayapal’s assessment. The longer the current stalemate drags on, the greater the chance that Senate moderates could respond to the left’s hardball tactics by simply walking away from the budget negotiations. 

A big-tent party

The Build Back Better bill would deliver on many progressive priorities. It includes initiatives ranging from expanded health care benefits and paid maternity leave to free community college and climate change measures. 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. The poll had a margin of error of 4.5 points. 

Democrats plan to pass the bill through a process known as budget reconciliation. But they will need the votes of every Senate Democrat, and on Wednesday Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia called it “fiscal insanity” to spend so much in the wake of already massive amounts of government spending to address pandemic-related needs.

He and Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who helped negotiate the bipartisan infrastructure bill, had not made any definitive counterproposals for a budget deal until Thursday, when a memo leaked showing Senator Manchin had told the president this summer that his top line was $1.5 trillion. 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’re a big-tent party, and we’re going to get this done,” said Rep. Josh Gottheimer, the moderate Democratic co-chair of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus earlier this week. 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. At times, that has meant weakening or even stripping out progressive priorities from Democratic legislation.

But as progressives have grown in numbers and gained more leverage within the party, they’ve become increasingly bold in asserting their demands.

“They’re stiffening their spine,” says Professor Glassman of Georgetown.

Jose Luis Magana/AP
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 has urged fellow progressives in Congress to link passage of the infrastructure bill to success on passing a budget with new spending on health care and climate change.

One reason is that Democratic voters themselves have shifted significantly to the left in 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 surprisingly successful presidential campaigns that drew legions of young supporters and arguably shifted the center of gravity in the Democratic Party, Senator Sanders – now chairman of the Senate Budget Committee – and his allies find themselves in a very different position.

Many progressives have been pointing out that it’s President Biden’s agenda – not just their own – that they’re fighting for. “This agenda is not some fringe wish list; it is the president’s agenda,” said Representative Jayapal earlier this week.

“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. Much of the president’s domestic agenda is included in these two bills, and he has been hosting a flurry of meetings all week to try to persuade the different wings to come together.

Senator Sanders, the sole member of the Senate in the Congressional Progressive Caucus, has been urging his fellow caucus members in the House not to support the infrastructure bill until the budget is passed. “We had a deal,” he said, referring to Democratic leaders’ agreement that the bills would advance in tandem, to assure passage of both. 

In light of that, progressives’ refusal to support an infrastructure bill before the other is agreed on could be seen as an effort to hold colleagues to their promise, says DeWayne Lucas, associate professor of political science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. 

“Their main concern right now is they’ve made these deals with moderates,” says Professor Lucas, noting that in the past when progressives had smaller numbers, their fellow Democrats didn’t always make good on such deals. “Now one of the issues for the progressive caucus is how to ensure that they get what was promised to them.” If anyone is a disrupter, he adds, it’s Senator Sinema, who may be embracing the “maverick” brand of Arizona. 

Part of the reason progressives are holding firm is the pressure from grassroots activists. About a dozen protesters chanted outside the Senate today as Senator Manchin spoke to reporters, saying he would be willing to support a $1.5 trillion budget – a quarter of the $6 trillion that Senator Sanders originally wanted. 

“This package as it is at $3.5 trillion is already the compromise,” says David Winston, co-chair of the “Medicare for All” working group of the metro D.C. Democratic Socialists of America, who sports 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.

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