Progressives Now Hold the Cards in Congress

The budget standoff revealed a new power balance in the Democratic Party.

Nick Vachon

(Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

In recent decades, progressives have largely been confined to the pious margins of American politics. One prime example was the fight over the Affordable Care Act under President Obama, when left-wing members of Congress demanded the inclusion of a public option, only to be rolled over by more conservative members of the Democratic Party. 

But this week it was a clique of recalcitrant moderates, not progressives, who were made to cave under pressure from Democratic leadership. Nine of the most conservative Democrats in the House had threatened to vote down President Joe Biden’s $3.5 trillion budget proposal unless the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) was passed first, contrary to both Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s stated strategy. On Tuesday, the nine holdouts agreed to pass the budget after securing a promise from Pelosi that the IIJA would be passed by September 27

The group, which included Reps. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, Jim Costa of California, Ed Case of Hawaii, and Kurt Schrader of Oregon, was a collection of some of the most corporate-friendly House Democrats. The group received more than $3 million in campaign donations from the fossil fuel and pharmaceutical industries, both industries which stand to lose from the budget plan, which would represent the largest expansion of the social safety net since President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society in the 1960s. 

Gottheimer and Schrader, in particular, are two of Big Pharma’s favorite Democrats, and have vociferously criticized Democrats’ attempt to lower prescription drug prices. Six of the group’s members are among the top 15 recipients of oil and gas money in the Democratic caucus. Another priority of the nine was removing the limit on the state and local tax deduction, colloquially known as the SALT deduction, which functioned mostly as a tax break for wealthy homeowners.

The budget would, over 10 years, fund universal preschool, provide students two free years of community college, expand Medicare and the Affordable Care Act, institute federally-funded family leave, and fight climate change through investments in clean energy and low-emission vehicles, all paid for by raising taxes on the rich and large corporations. The blueprint also provides a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, and would strengthen labor law enforcement.

While the September 27 deadline puts pressure on congressional committees to iron out the details of the budget plan quickly, it doesn’t change the underlying dynamic, in which progressives hold the leverage in the House over how the bills are moved through Congress. Members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus have held firm in their goal of passing the budget bill before approving the bipartisan plan, and can still withhold their votes from the latter to get their way. While conservative Democrats may hope that enough Republicans will get on board with the IIJA to outnumber progressive holdouts in the House, that plan will likely go nowhere, as large number of House GOP members are unlikely to defy former President Donald Trump, who has called the bipartisan plan a terrible deal.” 

That centrists were made to hew to the party line shows how far the political ground has shifted in recent years. In 2009, members of the CPC said they would refuse to vote for an Affordable Care Act without a public option. This outraged then-Senator Joe Lieberman, who threatened to torpedo the ACA if progressives got their way. President Barack Obama and congressional leaders placated Lieberman and cut the progressive priority out of the bill. The CPC went along with it, allowing centrists to set the party’s agenda.

But today, things are different. President Biden, one of the most conservative Democrats to contend for the party’s nomination in 2020, and Speaker Pelosi, whose contentious relationship with House progressives is no secret, are working alongside the CPC to pass a pair of historically-generous spending bills. Biden reportedly personally called the moderate holdouts to persuade them of the spending bill’s importance, and according to the New York Post, Democratic leadership even threatened to break up a moderate’s district through redistricting, and fire another member’s relative who worked at the White House. 

Rep. Ro Khanna of California, a CPC member, took a tone traditionally used by moderates to scold progressives, saying, Look, everyone has to compromise in Congress. I want Medicare for All; that’s not in the bill. I want free public college; that’s not in the bill. I want student-loan forgiveness for working families; that’s not in the bill. Guess what? You know whose bill it is? President Joe Biden. Last I understood, he won election as president. The Democratic Party needs to unify around his agenda to help people, and anyone who votes no’ on this is sabotaging Joe Biden and sabotaging the Democratic Party’s agenda.”

Part of the reason for the sea change is that progressives now hold more political power than they have in decades. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), chair of the Senate Budget Committee, played an essential role in developing the $3.5 trillion spending plan. The CPC has added 24 members since 2008 for a total of 95 in the House, and it stands as the largest ideological coalition in the Democratic Party. Plus, thanks to new rules passed late last year, the caucus now functions as a kind of party-within-a-party: members must, two-thirds of the time, vote for legislation supported by two-thirds of the membership or risk expulsion. And more authority has been vested in the CPC whip, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), caucus meetings are mandatory, and the co-chair structure has been abolished in favor of a single leader, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.).

Despite the resolution of this fight, another intraparty standoff seems likely. Conservative Senate Democrats Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona have already voiced concern over the price tag and size of the $3.5 trillion budget bill, and will no doubt demand some changes to the legislation. But Sanders, the bill’s primary author, remains confident that the package will ultimately be approved, telling Politico on Thursday, at the end of the day, every Democrat understands that it is terribly important that we support the president’s agenda. And most of these ideas came from the White House.” 

Our position remains unchanged: we will work to first pass the Build Back Better reconciliation bill so we can deliver these once-in-a-generation, popular, and urgently needed investments to poor and working families, and then pass the infrastructure bill to invest in our roads, bridges, and waterways,” a CPC statement released after the budget passed the House said. As our members have made clear for three months, the two are integrally tied together, and we will only vote for the infrastructure bill after passing the reconciliation bill.”

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) echoed the statement, telling NBC News that the September 27 deadline is a bit arbitrary” and that she is not committing to any date.”

For now, progressives, so often outsiders, are on the inside.

Nick Vachon is a writer based in New York. 

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