Tensions escalated sharply Monday between liberal Democrats and President Biden, as disputes over the end of an eviction moratorium and the fate of the Democrats’ social agenda threatened to upend the Democrats’ delicate center-left alliance.
That, however, did not satisfy liberal lawmakers, who were fuming that the White House had not prevented the moratorium from expiring Saturday in the first place. They called on Biden to unilaterally extend the federal protections, which they said would buy Congress time to find a longer-term solution, even if that meant inviting a legal challenge.
“It’s too little too late,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “The White House did not handle this well. I think they did not think about this eviction moratorium in a serious way.”
As for the broader tensions, Jayapal warned Biden not to take the party’s liberals for granted. “I think that, you know, every relationship needs tending,” she said, adding, “The president has also told me a couple months ago that he was looking forward to meeting with the Progressive Caucus, and we’re still waiting for that to happen.”
In a hastily called, expletive-laden videoconference call of the caucus’s executive board Sunday that included nearly two dozen lawmakers, members railed against the White House and House Democratic leaders over the eviction strategy, according to several Democrats with knowledge of the discussion.
Many liberals believe that this could be their only chance for years to enact major change, because Democrats could lose control of Congress next year, a fear that helps explain some of the current passion. White House officials say they are in fact pushing through a remarkable number of liberal priorities, given that the Senate is split 50-50 and Democrats hold a narrow three-seat majority in the House.
The raw outrage was also evident in Congress on Monday, when Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.), who has camped out on the Capitol steps the past several days to protest the expiration of the eviction ban, raced to the Senate side of the Capitol for an impromptu chat with Vice President Harris.
A Democratic aide familiar with the two-minute exchange described it as amicable but said it fell short of what Bush was hoping for. Like others interviewed for this report, the aide spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private talks.
“Since the president’s term [started], I haven’t seen this much frustration — anger — in the progressive caucus,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) said Monday. Like other liberal lawmakers, he said the White House has a moral imperative to protect the vulnerable at a moment when the coronavirus is resurgent. “It makes absolutely no sense from a public health perspective,” he said.
White House officials said that they agree wholeheartedly that the eviction moratorium should be extended but that their hands are tied by a recent Supreme Court ruling. In June, the high court said the moratorium could continue another month, but Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, a swing vote, said the ban had to end at that point unless Congress acted to prolong it. Still, House Democrats are united in believing that Biden could sign an executive order to extend the moratorium.
Biden desperately would like to find a way around that, aides said.
“This is a president who really understands the heartbreak of eviction,” Gene Sperling, the White House’s coronavirus relief coordinator, told reporters. “The reason why he is pressing and pressing, even when legal authority looks slim, is because he wants to make sure we have explored every potential authority.”
Sperling also suggested that the larger problem of evictions and homelessness requires a more comprehensive solution. “This is not an easy task,” he said. “We as a country have never had a national infrastructure or national policy for preventing avoidable evictions,” he said.
The uproar over evictions comes on top of liberal concerns about the two-part White House plan to spend trillions of dollars rebuilding roads and bridges and creating new federal benefits such as two years of free community college and an expansion of Medicare.
White House officials have made progress advancing a bipartisan deal on the infrastructure part of the plan, but liberals worry that their priorities took a back seat in the process — and that the second part of the package, expanding the social safety net, may not materialize as originally envisioned.
Liberal Democratic aides and lawmakers complained that they were being taken for granted, a sentiment they find especially painful after many liberals got behind Biden’s candidacy with the understanding that he would champion their priorities.
“I have communicated to the White House that they need to spend a lot more time on getting the reconciliation package through,” Jayapal said, referring to the social programs part of the Biden agenda, which is not expected to attract any Republican votes.
A White House official with knowledge of the situation said Biden has in fact spent considerable time selling the social programs package, traveling the country to stress its importance, with officials planning to do more. The bipartisan bill has attracted more headlines recently because it came up first on the Senate’s legislative calendar, the official said, noting that in August, Harris, first lady Jill Biden, second gentleman Doug Emhoff and other officials will fan out across the country to promote the second part of the plan.
“The President, his cabinet, and teams across the White House are constantly fighting for his Build Back Better agenda, which would make transformational investments in human infrastructure, on climate, and on healthcare affordability — as well as extend the biggest middle class tax cut in American history,” White House spokesman Andrew Bates said in a statement.
The clashes broke into the open on the eve of a closely watched Democratic primary in Ohio’s 11th Congressional District, which pits Nina Turner, who hails from the party’s insurgent liberal movement, against an establishment-backed opponent, Shontel Brown, who is aligned with Biden. The race will offer a fresh snapshot of how Democratic voters feel about brewing disputes in the party.
For Biden, the cascade of developments signaled a potentially costly inflection point in his relationship with the left. It also showed how the resurgence of the coronavirus, due to the spread of the highly contagious delta variant and the refusal of millions of Americans to get vaccinated, has upended his dynamic with Capitol Hill.
In his first six months in office, the president and his aides have worked diligently to tamp down the ideological warfare that has long plagued their party. They have often found success, winning praise from former liberal critics and regularly finding areas of common cause.
The question now is whether that alliance is fraying. With the smallest congressional majorities in years, even a minor revolt could be enough to unravel Biden’s careful strategy and ambitious plans.
Liberals have long grumbled that the administration has not done enough on issues such as voting rights or gun control, but relations have deteriorated in recent days as the end of the eviction moratorium appeared to catch many Democrats flat-footed.
On Friday, Biden placed the responsibility for stopping evictions in large part on state and local governments. Later, a push by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for Congress to extend the moratorium collapsed.
That initiative was opposed by about 20 moderate House Democrats who objected to another extension that did not provide incentives for state and local governments to disburse more of the $46 billion allotted to help landlords and tenants. Only $3 billion has been used thus far.
With the House then setting off on its summer recess, many liberals were enraged both with the White House and House leadership. White House officials on Monday said Biden had directed aides to keep looking for legal authority for him to act and would keep pressing state and local governments to head off evictions.
But to many Democrats, the White House position amounted to a weak excuse to punt the problem rather than act. Pelosi expressed hope that the administration would ultimately do more.
“The administration’s statement that they will be taking action to find legal authority by the CDC or other authorities to extend the moratorium is welcome,” Pelosi said in a statement. “For the good of families on the verge of eviction, my Democratic House colleagues and I are hopeful that this initiative to extend the moratorium will be successful as soon as possible.”
Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.), who supported Bush by staying late into the night on the Capitol steps Sunday, said Biden’s inaction on evictions could cost him needed support among liberals for his infrastructure priorities.
“I think the president and most of his senior advisers are moderate to conservative on a number of these issues and don’t know what it’s like to experience adversity,” Jones said in an interview. “I think you’ll see a majority of members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which is very large, say that they’re not going to vote for the bipartisan infrastructure bill unless the reconciliation package is also passed through the Senate.”
The caucus consists of 96 House members and one senator, according to its website.
Such a protest could force the White House to make tough decisions, such as whether to try to enact the infrastructure plan with help from Republicans if a significant number of liberal Democrats decline to support it. Pelosi has said she will not bring up the bipartisan bill until the Senate passes the partisan companion measure.
As someone who was evicted three times in her life before coming to Congress, Bush has made it a personal mission to draw attention to the issue. Liberal colleagues have rallied around her push.
They have also asked to speak with White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain and the president on the eviction issue, though aides with knowledge of the situation expressed dissatisfaction with the response. Klain has returned every call he has received from liberal lawmakers, including several high-profile ones Monday and in recent days, according to a White House official with knowledge of the situation. The official declined to give specific names.
On Monday, Bush decided to take matters into her own hands. She spoke with Pelosi, according to Bush spokeswoman Julia Albertson, and upon spotting the vice president’s motorcade arriving in the Senate, Bush and Jones ran over to the upper chamber to try to talk with Harris.
Harris and Bush spoke, with the congresswoman pleading that the White House do more to prevent evictions. “I just had a conversation with @VP Kamala Harris,” Bush later tweeted. “I needed her to look me in my eyes and I wanted to look in hers when I asked for help to prevent our people from being evicted.”