The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Liberal Democrats have become the mainstream of the party and less willing to compromise with dwindling moderates

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) of the Congressional Progressive Caucus answers questions from reporters on Oct. 1. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/for The Washington Post)

Moments after President Biden instructed House Democrats to make concessions or risk derailing passage of his economic agenda, members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus hastily gathered in the depths of the Capitol on Oct. 1 to talk strategy about what policies they could sacrifice.

No one was ready to compromise.

According to several lawmakers who participated in the two-hour meeting, members stood up one by one to vouch for establishing universal pre-K, making the child tax credit permanent and guaranteeing 12 weeks of paid family leave. Others mentioned the need to expand Medicare to cover dental, hearing and vision, which would get them one step closer to the progressive goal of Medicare-for-all.

But with no set decision on what policies could be sacrificed, members of the almost 100 strong caucus left Friday’s meeting for a two-week recess with an agreement not to give an inch publicly while they continued to consider privately how to respond to the reality that some of their priorities would probably have to be jettisoned from Biden’s “Build Back Better” economic package.

“We’re at the table. Do not negotiate against ourselves,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the CPC’s chairwoman, told her caucus, according to two people in the room, in a statement that has since become a suggested talking point for members.

Who wants what out of Congress’s fiscal battles?

The third-term lawmaker’s message could prove easier said than done over the next few weeks.

While the Progressive Caucus has managed to surprise critics by remaining united and disciplined during tense standoffs this year, that cohesion could soon fracture when members will probably be forced concede that their shared policy concerns addressing climate, immigration, housing, education and health care may not survive the House and Senate negotiations aimed at producing a package that can become law.

Jayapal says she has already fielded calls from frustrated members, though she did not elaborate on what concerns they have in the current negotiating process. Constant communication, she said, is imperative to reminding members that they all agreed to the current strategy and will need to continue to do so to prevent the caucus from being pushed out of the negotiations.

“I’ve made it really clear to the caucus and people agree. The reason we got to where we got to is because we took a collective position,” she said. “And we have to stay collective in our asks.”

The public hand-wringing by House liberals, at times, masks how much they have become the mainstream of the party during the Biden presidency. Despite frustrations over the current negotiations on infrastructure and larger social spending bill, they are no longer pushing policies from the wings hoping to get some of what they want into the Democratic agenda as was the case during the first years of the Obama administration when their top priorities — like a public health care option as part of the Affordable Care Act — seemed like pipe dreams.

As many of CPC members have recently pointed out — Biden’s agenda is their agenda. The party outliers now are the shrinking group of moderates whose votes are still key, but whose views represent a minority of the party.

“This is, oddly, the progressives who are holding up [Biden’s] agenda and trying to make sure the president can fulfill that agenda,” Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), a vote counter for the CPC, said last week. “The majority of the agenda that the president ran on that delivered us the House, the Senate and the White House is in the Build Back Better agenda. If we fail to deliver on that promise, we have failed the American people.”

This reality has only increased the frustration among liberals in recent weeks, particularly with centrist Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.).

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — a founding member of the Progressive Caucus when he was a House member in 1991 — said last week that he has held back on pushing policies on his wish list that the majority of the caucus does not support to help advance the party’s overall agenda, accusing his centrists colleagues of not doing the same.

“The time is long overdue for him to tell us with specificity — not generalities, but beyond generalities, with specificity — what he wants and what he does not want,” he said in reference to Manchin at a news conference. “It is wrong, and it is really not playing fair, that one or two people think that they should be able to stop what 48 members of the Democratic caucus want, what the American people want, what the president of the United States wants.”

The expectations game hounds Democrats as they try to deliver their vast agenda

Jayapal made a similar point.

“This isn’t a moderate versus progressive conversation, it’s a 96 percent versus 4 percent conversation,” she said in an interview, referencing the very few fiscal conservatives who are against the $3.5 trillion package. “So there’s no point to negotiate against ourselves.”

House liberals also said they will continue to threaten to vote against the bipartisan Senate-passed $1.2 trillion infrastructure package favored by moderates until there is agreement on the broader economic bill.

For now, House liberals remain united — from members of the liberal “Squad” to the less vocal veterans of Congress — in telling Democratic leaders that their preferred course of action is to lower the $3.5 trillion price tag of Biden’s Build Back Better proposal not by getting rid of priorities but by having them expire after a few years, which would make them less costly on paper, according to people familiar with the discussion who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private deliberations.

The idea is that the policy initiatives will prove so popular that a future Congress will extend them and liberals will get what they want over the long-term while sidestepping the spending concerns of moderates in the short term.

But some moderate members said they are wary of this approach for a number of reasons. One is that it doesn’t address the concerns of some about government spending and is essentially a gimmick. Second, centrists who support some of these programs worry that a Republican-led Congress would let them expire and that Democrats would be better off focusing on producing fewer but more durable policies. And third, several members contend creating programs that would sunset creates a confusing message to sell to voters during the 2022 midterm elections.

“To truly deliver on the priorities that President Biden and New Dems ran on, we should focus on doing fewer things better for longer that have a tangible, immediate impact for the American people,” said Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.), who chairs The New Democrat Coalition, a group of 95 moderate and progressive members that describe itself as being for “pro-economic growth, pro-innovation, and fiscally responsible policies.”

DelBene’s group has pitched preserving three specific priorities, including fully funding the child tax credit enacted earlier this year, making permanent insurance subsidies under the Affordable Care Act and expanding access to Medicaid in states under Republican control, and addressing climate change.

The pitch is backed by the Progressive Policy Institute in a new report that categorizes priorities into three buckets to reach the $2 trillion price tag Biden suggested to progressives due to the objections of Manchin and Sinema to the larger price tag.

Sticking to that proposal, however, could nix key priorities for Democrats like paid family leave and universal pre-K, which advocates say have gained greater importance as recent job reports show women continue to not to rejoin the workforce because of the cost of child care, and the pandemic’s lingering complications for schools and day-care centers. It could also leave behind liberals’ wishes to expand Medicare to cover dental, hearing and vision.

The handful of House Democratic members expressing concerns similar to Manchin and Sinema about the overall cost of the bill are mostly confined to the 19-member Blue Dog Coalition, which had more than twice as many members during the Obama administration.

Members and aides familiar with the Progressive Caucus’s position say they are unlikely to make any concessions until Manchin and Sinema publicly lay out detailed policy demands. Manchin has recently provided some specifics of what he wants but Sinema has been publicly mum.

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CPC leaders last week instructed their members in a memo obtained by The Washington Post to remind reporters and constituents that if “someone wants to cut the number, they need to first tell us which popular, necessary, and urgent programs they want to cut” because most of the party stands with preserving the full scope of the economic package.

Keeping members on the same page has been a prerogative for the CPC since last year, when bylaws and leadership changes were instituted to ensure cohesion among its 96 members to give it more power.

Among those changes were hiring more staff to coordinate with lawmakers and to have a better understanding of what demands members may have on an array of issues. Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) and Jayapal, who served as co-chairs last year, decided it was best to have one chairperson after members would often run to their “favorite parent,” as a progressive aide said, that left both leaders entering meetings with different perspectives.

Earlier this year, leaders in the CPC sent a survey to members so they could determine which legislative priorities they would push to be included in the Build Back Better agenda. Housing was the top priority for a majority of members, according to an aide.

The top policies were then narrowed down into different groups before being sent back to members for another round of decisions. All 96 members identified strengthening child and elder care; investing in affordable housing; lowering the cost of prescription drugs and Medicare expansion; climate-related investments; and immigration as the caucus’s five pillars.

Biden faces shrinking timetable to salvage his agenda

The CPC recently finished comparing the policy priorities presented to congressional leaders and the White House, and found that the House version of the Build Back Better proposal recently assembled by the House Budget Committee contained 95 percent of what they proposed.

Overall, there is an understanding that concessions will need to be made in some form.

As one aide put it, some of the most liberal members probably “won’t be taking a victory lap” if a slimmed down Build Back Better package is enacted but they also won’t block its passage either, hoping that it will lay the groundwork for expanding liberal priorities over time.

“We’re not all getting everything we want, and everyone knows that,” said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), a veteran of the CPC. “I don’t know one progressive member who thinks that it’s our way or the highway.”