Progressives Flex Muscles on Biden Agenda, Adopting New Tactics

WASHINGTON — Progressive Democrats in Congress, who have long promoted a bold, liberal agenda but often shied away from using hardball tactics to achieve it, did something unusual this week: They dug in.

The nearly 100-member caucus refused to support a $1 trillion infrastructure bill that is a major piece of President Biden’s agenda, seeking leverage for a bigger fight.

Their stance forced Speaker Nancy Pelosi to delay a planned vote on the measure and ultimately prompted Mr. Biden to side with them in saying that there could be no vote on the infrastructure legislation until agreement on a far broader, multitrillion-dollar social policy and climate measure.

The maneuver drew plaudits from liberal activists who had watched with dismay in the past as their allies in Congress caved to pressure from Democratic leaders and surrendered in policy fights. And it signaled that the progressives enjoyed newfound influence, including the backing of a president long associated with his party’s moderates.

“Things only happen here when there is urgency,” Representative Pramila Jayapal of Washington, the chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said on Friday. “I’m just so proud of our caucus, because they are standing up for people who feel like they have not been heard in this country for a very long time.”

Still, while the progressives scored a tactical victory, negotiations continued to whittle down the size of the social policy and climate bill, which was already much smaller than the initial $6 trillion to $10 trillion that many of them had envisioned.

Their persistence also risked the collapse of both bills, angering moderates in the party who had delivered the slim majority to Democrats and are at the highest risk of losing their seats in the midterm elections.

Despite its growing ranks, the progressive caucus has struggled for years to enact its agenda of providing more robust health care services, taxing the wealthy, reining in military spending and addressing climate change. Activists have grown frustrated as they helped elect members to Congress, who then fell in line, voting for whatever Democratic leaders put on the floor.

In recent years, the caucus has tried and failed to cut military spending by 10 percent and struggled to enact major tenets of what it calls its People’s Budget. High-profile progressives protested this year over a lapsing eviction moratorium. But the effort failed to muster enough support for Democratic leaders to put legislation on the floor to extend it.

This week’s machinations buoyed the movement. During a private meeting of the progressives on Friday evening, lawmakers were celebratory as they discussed how they were able to “hold the line” for Mr. Biden’s agenda.

“It’s undeniable that this is a new era of progressive power,” said Mary Small, the national policy director of the Indivisible Project, a grass-roots group. “They had a list of what their priorities would be for the reconciliation bill, and they’ve been dogged.”

Ms. Small said progressives won the battle of ideas before the battle of tactics: The social spending and climate change platform put forth by Mr. Biden stems in large part from the proposals of Senator Bernie Sanders, independent of Vermont and the chairman of the Budget Committee, who was the first chairman of the Progressive Caucus. But bare-knuckled tactics were important too, Ms. Small said.

“They have a plan to deliver on their priorities rather than just talking about their preferred polices,” she said.

Kaniela Ing, the climate justice campaign director for People’s Action, said many progressive activists were still upset about how Democrats allowed Republicans to weaken the Affordable Care Act with a slew of amendments when the party had control of both chambers of Congress. But he is now cheering the stance taken by the Progressive Caucus.

“They’re doing exactly what we need to do,” he said. “The strategy is to pass exactly what Biden promised.”

Mr. Ing added that progressives were only responding to the political maneuvers of centrist Democrats, who have sought to pass the infrastructure bill without the broader measures.

The liberals’ tactics were reminiscent of those employed by the ultraconservative House Freedom Caucus, whose members routinely threatened to withhold their bloc of votes unless Republican leaders met their demands. More moderate Republicans, particularly those from competitive districts, became incensed with the group, blaming them for standing in the way of popular bills that were political imperatives.

On Thursday, some politically vulnerable Democrats were similarly angry at their progressive counterparts for holding up a bill that had broad support.

“When Iowans tell me they are sick of Washington games, this is what they mean,” Representative Cindy Axne of Iowa said in a statement after leaders announced the delay of the infrastructure vote. “All at once or nothing is no way to govern.”

But unlike the Freedom Caucus, the progressives’ stand does not appear to have angered either their leaders in Congress or the White House.

Ms. Jayapal said she had stayed in “very close touch with the White House,” and progressives said they had been encouraged by the message they had received from Ron Klain, the White House chief of staff.

Ron Klain, the White House chief of staff. One person familiar with his calls with progressive lawmakers said he had left with the impression that the White House was encouraging them to “hold firm.”Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

In meetings and discussions with progressive lawmakers, Mr. Klain has been blunt about the president’s belief that Democrats need to reach a framework agreement on broader social policy legislation before they can approve the infrastructure measure, according to three officials familiar with the discussions.

That appears to have emboldened progressives.

One person familiar with Mr. Klain’s calls said they left liberal lawmakers with the impression that the White House was encouraging them to “hold firm” against an infrastructure vote until a deal could be reached with two centrist Democratic Senators, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who have demanded changes to Mr. Biden’s $3.5 trillion plan.

Progressives have feared that if the infrastructure bill passes, giving moderate Democrats a big win, Mr. Manchin and Ms. Sinema would have little incentive to give in to demands from the White House and progressives to retain as much as possible of Mr. Biden’s $3.5 trillion proposal.

Mr. Klain retweeted a post on social media from Representative Jared Huffman, Democrat of California and a member of the Progressive Caucus, who said they were “setting the Biden agenda back on track” by delaying the vote on infrastructure.

The White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, told reporters on Friday that Mr. Klain was “not arguing against or whipping against our own agenda.”

“But we do feel strongly, and the president feels very strongly, about getting both pieces of these legislation done,” she said.

The stand progressive lawmakers made this week came amid a rise of activism aimed at Congress by the left. On Thursday, protesters held signs in front of the Capitol that said “Pass Reconciliation First,” and another group of activists paddled kayaks to confront Mr. Manchin in the waters next to his large houseboat docked at a Washington marina.

President Biden with Speaker Nancy Pelosi at the Capitol on Friday. He sided with progressives in saying that there could be no vote on infrastructure until agreement on a broader social policy and climate measure.Credit…Samuel Corum for The New York Times

Before the infrastructure vote was delayed late on Thursday, Ms. Jayapal had warned caucus members not to gloat if they succeeded in stopping the bill in its tracks, according to a person with knowledge of her comments.

But their success fueled an already poisonous relationship between some liberal Democrats and their more moderate colleagues.

Representative Ilhan Omar, Democrat of Minnesota, took aim on Thursday night at Representative Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, a leading centrist who had confidently declared that he was “1,000 percent” sure that the infrastructure bill would pass that day.

“In Congress, we don’t make predictions like this until we know we have the votes,” Ms. Omar wrote on Twitter. “Some of us get this, others bluff & fall on their face. Hopefully, @JoshGottheimer and the other 4% of Democrats will not obstruct but negotiate and help us get @POTUS’s agenda done for the people.”

On Friday, Ms. Jayapal sent a fund-raising email asking supporters to chip in $3 each to back her efforts.

“Last night, we held the line,” it stated. “We stopped attempts by corporate America and a few conservative Democrats to pass their small bill without President Biden’s popular Build Back Better Act that makes long-overdue investments in working people, families and our communities. Corporations are FURIOUS. But progressives aren’t giving in.”

Carl Hulse contributed reporting.

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