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Progressives become Biden's most powerful allies on Capitol Hill

·Senior Writer
·6-min read
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With his full domestic agenda teetering in Congress, President Biden — a longtime stalwart of the Democrats’ moderate wing — has found unlikely allies in the form of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Since the beginning of the summer, the plan from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer was to pass Biden’s full domestic agenda via two bills: an infrastructure measure focusing on bridges, roads, ports and broadband, and a larger budget proposal with funding for a wide range of programs, including new spending on climate change, education, childcare and a Medicare expansion.

The Senate passed the infrastructure bill in August, with many Democrats in both chambers saying they would support the bill only if it were attached to the budget deal. While centrists in the Democratic caucus were calling on Pelosi to move on the infrastructure bill last week, it was progressives who insisted the Biden agenda pass as one.

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., right, and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., arrive for a remembrance ceremony on the east front steps of the U.S. Capitol for the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on Monday, September 13, 2021. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)
From left: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)

This movement was spearheaded by Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, who for weeks has said she had enough votes to block the infrastructure bill if the budget resolution were not passed first.

Since the Democratic primaries, progressives have been portrayed as Biden’s main antagonists within his own party. Yet it was Jayapal’s pressure, along with the backing of 11 left-leaning Senate Democrats, who kept the chances of both bills passing alive. Many Democrats believed that if the infrastructure bill were passed on its own, the loss of any leverage over the party’s centrists would result in either a much smaller reconciliation package or none at all.

Whether any of Biden’s agenda still passes remains to be seen, as the wings of the party remain far apart on the total price tag of the budget deal and what programs should be included within it. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Jayapal originally wanted the package to be $6 trillion over 10 years, but negotiations among Democrats on the Senate Budget Committee resulted in a $3.5 trillion proposal.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., has said he’s not comfortable going above $1.5 trillion, resulting in the current negotiations. Biden has said that he has 99 percent of the caucus on board with his agenda, but he needs two more senators — Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz. — to sign on before it’s passed.

Leading members of the Democrats’ progressive wing have been open about their willingness to compromise somewhat with the centrists. "Three and a half trillion should be a minimum, but I accept that there's gonna have to be a give and take," Sanders told ABC News Sunday, adding, "Both these bills are going forward in tandem.”

In an appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday, Jayapal said Manchin’s proposed budget size is “not going to happen.” At the same time, she acknowledged that the final price tag would be “somewhere between $1.5 [trillion] and $3.5 [trillion]."

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks about the need for Congress to raise the debt limit in the State Dining Room at the White House on October 04, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
President Biden delivers remarks about the need for Congress to raise the debt limit at the White House on Monday. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

While progressives were holding out their votes on infrastructure last week, they did not receive pressure from the White House. When Biden visited the Capitol on Friday to meet with Democratic legislators, he sided with the progressives in saying that the bills needed to pass together. The alliance comes despite frustration from progressives toward a number of Biden White House policies, from immigration and refugee quotas to marijuana legalization and criminal justice reform.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki mentioned Jayapal favorably multiple times at briefings last week, saying on Sept. 27, “I would point to something Congresswoman Jayapal said yesterday: ‘Right now, it’s not a secret about what is the holdup.’ The holdup is that we need to get 50 votes in the Senate to move the infrastructure, to move the reconciliation package forward, in order for members of the Progressive Caucus in the House to feel comfortable that there’s a path forward.”

Psaki added on Sept. 29, “I would note that I just saw Congresswoman Jayapal on television conveying something similar to what I just said, which is that that’s a constructive role for [Biden] to be playing in this moment,” referring to the president’s work attempting to unify the party on a path forward.

In late June, Biden said he wouldn’t sign the infrastructure deal if it came to his desk without the larger budget agreement, comments he later walked back. Speaking at the White House Monday, he again took full ownership of both pieces of legislation.

“The legislation, both the Build Back Better piece as well as the infrastructure piece, are things that I wrote,” the president said. Build Back Better is the White House’s term for the president’s domestic agenda, the majority of which is included in the budget proposal.

“These didn’t come from — God love ’em — Bernie Sanders or [Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.] or anybody else: I wrote them. I disagreed with Medicare for All, for example, but I laid out what I thought would be important.”

In this Feb. 10, 2020 file photo, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., right, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. wave to supporters at campaign stop at Whittemore Center Arena at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, N.H. On Tuesday, May 5, federal Judge Analisa Torres ruled that the New York Democratic presidential primary must take place June 23 because canceling it would be unconstitutional. (Andrew Harnik/AP Photo)
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and then-presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., at a New Hampshire campaign stop on Feb. 10, 2020. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

While Biden did not technically write the infrastructure bill (it was hammered out by Senate moderates) or the most recent budget proposal (negotiated by Sanders and the rest of the Budget Committee, which he chairs), those proposals stemmed from the American Jobs Plan and the American Family Plan, which Biden announced in the spring.

And while Biden won the Democratic nomination partly as a relative moderate, Jayapal notes that the Build Back Better plan was central to his 2020 campaign. She also argues that passing it is a pragmatic way to win over voters who have defected to the GOP in recent years.

“We made all these promises to voters across the country that we were going to deliver on this agenda. It’s not some crazy left-wing wish list,” Jayapal told the Seattle Times last week.

“I feel like we in the Democratic Party have lost so many voters because they don’t see us fighting for the things that might be a little bit harder to get across the finish line.”

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