The lawmakers who called on the administration to extend the moratorium, after the White House insisted it did not have the legal authority to do so, said the lesson they took away from the experience is that their activist backgrounds and methods can achieve results even as they now fight their battles from inside the government.
“Activists are in Congress, so let’s be clear: Expect for things to be different than maybe what people are used to. We don’t have the same eyes, the same background or agenda as some others,” Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.), who slept on the steps of the Capitol to draw attention to the moratorium’s lapse, said Tuesday after the Biden administration announced the extension. “We are servant leaders. We serve first.”
But forcing the administration’s hand on an eviction ban tied to the coronavirus pandemic may be an easier task than ensuring their priorities do not get shortchanged during the upcoming legislative fights, with Democratic moderates in both chambers wary of the amount of spending liberals are advocating.
The Senate this week is expected to pass an infrastructure bill that resulted from a deal cut by a bipartisan group of centrists. House liberals have panned the bill as falling far short of the country’s needs, but party leaders have said it will not be enacted unless a larger bill that would spend trillions on education, child care and climate change is passed alongside the money for roads and bridges.
With only a three-vote Democratic majority in the House, liberals have leverage, but they will have to decide how hard to push leaders trying to balance their concerns against the concerns of moderate members. Those members’ votes will also be needed to successfully complete the legislative two-step required to get both infrastructure and safety-net spending into law.
Democratic moderates are already agitating for the House to quickly take up the bipartisan Senate infrastructure package rather than waiting for the larger spending bill to be drafted, which could take months.
The moderates, many of whom represent competitive districts, are eager for a piece of significant bipartisan legislation they can champion back home to beat back Republican accusations that the party is being run by socialists.
“We urge House leadership to bring this deal to the House floor as a stand-alone bill for a vote immediately following Senate passage, and the Co-Chairs of the Blue Dog Coalition oppose any effort to unnecessarily delay consideration of this critical bipartisan legislation,” Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.), the moderate Blue Dog Coalition’s co-chair for communications, said in a statement last week.
Aides to liberal lawmakers said they are aware of the limits to their power in a deeply polarized Washington, especially given the party’s small majority in both chambers.
But they also said liberals had already scored an early victory by pushing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) to publicly pledge that the infrastructure bill and the expansion of the social safety net had to move in tandem, despite the misgivings of more-centrist members.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) said that earlier this year the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which she leads, did a vote count of its members on major parts of the party’s agenda, allowing the group to issue an ultimatum that the two bills had to be tied together if either was to pass the House.
“And I can tell you not everybody was pleased with that,” she said.
“It was weeks later that the speaker, who is an incredible vote-counter, the speaker then took up that position and Senate Majority Leader Schumer took up that position,” Jayapal added. “It was a very strategic organizing campaign to get that to be the message of the Democratic Party, which that did become.”
Asked Wednesday whether she would hold firm on her plan not to move forward on the infrastructure bill until the larger social spending proposal was completed, Pelosi told reporters: “Yes.”
The show of force from liberals this week revolved around the Biden administration’s decision to say it was allowing an eviction moratorium to expire, because a Supreme Court decision from earlier this year prevented it from unilaterally extending the program. Lawmakers complained the White House did not inform them of this decision until late last week, giving them little time to pass legislation to save the program.
Bush and other liberal members who are new to Congress — and elected on promises to buck the conventional way Washington operates — harshly criticized the administration while imploring congressional leaders to stay in town to work on a solution rather than adjourning for the summer recess.
After a few days, the White House capitulated and announced it was extending the program, with some tweaks, even though President Biden acknowledged the action may be shut down by the courts.
Multiple aides to liberal members involved said one lesson learned is to pressure the Biden administration to act unilaterally when possible, rather than allowing the White House to kick those issues to Congress — such as whether to forgive student loans controlled by the government.
“We forced the White House to do better,” Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.) said Tuesday evening during a news conference in front of the House steps. “There’s so much at stake still. We know there is a looming deadline with respect to the cause on the collection of student loan debt and the accrual of interest and, make no mistake, that the White House will not be allowed to say that it didn’t know that deadline was looming.”
The administration has been careful to tend to the needs of liberals when it has drawn their ire, which has bought Biden some goodwill.
Many of House liberals’ priorities were included in the $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill enacted earlier this year, such as a larger child tax credit, and the administration and congressional leaders included the Progressive Caucus’ priorities in the social-program spending package.
“I think the thing I want to stress here is that the approach we’ve already taken of identifying our priorities early, being clear about our position, has already led to two significant efforts, two significant victories on the reconciliation bill,” Jayapal said during a call with reporters Tuesday.
A White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions, said that the administration continues to work with liberal leaders in Congress and advocacy groups to address their concerns with the safety-net bill but did not say how it will improve relationships with liberals who are now aiming to pressure Biden on issues he can tackle unilaterally.
Pelosi has also earned some goodwill with the caucus for the role she played in pressuring the White House to extend the eviction moratorium.
“If we didn’t have Pelosi, if we didn’t have Schumer pushing and having those behind-the-scenes calls, it would have been harder to get the moratorium done,” Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-Calif.) said in an interview. “It reinforces some ideas that we already had, which is that in order to get legislation done or continue fighting for working people, you have to bring in the outside activism and inside legislating together.”
The sequence of events this week was strikingly similar to a lengthier standoff with the White House this spring over refugee policy. In that dispute, Biden backtracked from his pledge to lift the cap on the number of refugees who can enter the country each year, opting to leave the limit where the Trump administration had set it. This angered liberals and refugee advocates, who kept pressing him to live up to his initial promise. Eventually, Biden raised the cap, and the most vocal activists and lawmakers attributed the shift to their relentless pressure.
The evictions episode also bore some echoes of the way Biden responded to demands from liberals that he do more to champion voting rights in the face of GOP state legislatures tightening voting laws. After public criticism reached a boiling point, Biden’s Justice Department announced new actions, and Biden gave a speech on the topic in Philadelphia a few weeks later.
Hiccups along the way, however, suggest more trouble could be in store for the president in the months ahead with the left wing of his party. There is lingering dissatisfaction on the left that a campaign promise to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour has yet to be realized. And they are pressing Biden to do more on immigration, voting rights, climate change and gun control.
Tuesday evening into Wednesday, liberal members reveled in their victory on the eviction policy, championing Bush for her commitment to use her personal experience with homelessness earlier in her life, combined with a creative public pressure campaign, to force policy changes in a deeply divided Washington.
“I think Cori Bush was a hero in the story,” said Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.). “She dramatized personally the impact on those who are most vulnerable. And I think that as we take up the human infrastructure bill, I think that same kind of humanity has to be brought to the provisions which we’re going to be debating and hopefully including in that bill.”
Mike DeBonis and Tyler Pager contributed to this report.