Their message was meant for all Democrats, not just liberals. But party leaders are keenly aware of the need to head off unrest over the potential exclusion of many top progressive priorities as they rush to clinch a deal with key centrists. To them, a bill that enacts some of the party’s marquee policy promises is far better than elongating the infighting that’s consumed the Democratic Party for roughly six months now.
As Democratic leaders try to finalize an agreement with Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) this week, major liberal priorities — once seen as red lines — have repeatedly been crossed, pared back or even cut all together. Medicare expansion, new Medicaid coverage and paid leave are all threatening to go the way of a carbon tax and the Clean Electricity Performance Plan: overboard.
Progressives are preparing to reluctantly embrace the $1 trillion-plus legislation. While it’s definitely not the bill they wanted, it’s likely the best deal they’re going to get with Democrats’ narrow majorities in both chambers.
“The vast majority of our priorities are in, but there are a couple of areas where that’s still not the case,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), who leads the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told reporters Monday night. “What we’ll continue to do is push as hard as we can, but just recognize that there are 50 senators and we have no margin in the Senate.”
Still, she added: “Nobody should take progressive votes for granted.”
Even as they vowed to keep fighting for policy priorities at risk of being left behind, Jayapal and her liberal allies were touting the progress they’ve made. Several of their five “must have” policies in the bill would still be included, they said, such as delivering billions of dollars for affordable housing and the so-called care economy, including child and elder care.
“We are headed toward a win. Will it be everything that we want? It’s clear that it won’t be, it’s just a matter of how much we are able to keep in,” said Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas). “You’ve got a lot of cooks in the kitchen but only a couple of chefs.”
Progressives’ evolution is a remarkable shift in stance from the group that, just weeks ago, was threatening to tank another high profile agenda item of President Joe Biden’s — the Senate-passed infrastructure bill — if leadership didn’t meet their demands about the broader bill.
Now, as they face real urgency to deliver, progressives in Congress are taking a pragmatic turn, even as they lament what may be left behind.
Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) said it would be a “major disappointment” to cut a deal at $1.5 trillion and she’s “not happy” paid leave may be left out. Yet in the end, she said she will be “open-minded about my position on the ultimate bill.”
“You draw a red line, and then you get stuck. You know, I’m not interested in getting stuck,” Hirono said. Asked about Manchin whittling the bill down, she said: “Considering that we need all 50 votes to get anything done, you know that we’re in a situation where one person can do that.”
Not everyone is happy. Many liberals are privately fuming at other pieces at risk of being left out of the bill, particularly climate components, drug pricing and expanding Medicare.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) declined to comment on the possibility that his Medicare expansion could be pared back or even eliminated, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) acknowledged she’s begun a “new conversation” on paid leave with Manchin over his opposition to a strong federalized program.
“It’s really frustrating, it’s as simple as that,” said Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) of seeing the bill downsized. “Where we’ll land is still going to be a really robust investment in people that are often left out.”
Still, it looks like progressives will win something in nearly every policy area, leaving out only immigration — which many Democrats had long doubted could make the cut. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) is preparing a last-ditch effort to protect millions of undocumented immigrants — though it faces a tough sell with the Senate parliamentarian, who has denied Democrats’ other attempts to include it.
But those victories could be enough to unlock the House votes to pass the $550 billion infrastructure bill the Senate approved nearly three months ago, and deliver a potential win to the party ahead of two critical gubernatorial races next week in Virginia and New Jersey.
Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) said he would support the infrastructure bill “if there’s an agreement on the [social spending bill], that I think is the best we’re going to get given the reality.”
Durbin likened the cuts taking place to Democrats’ top agenda items to “asking a parent their favorite child.” In many cases, lawmakers have been developing these proposals for years, only to see them threatened at crunch time due to concerns from moderate Democrats.
“I just want us to see a good deal,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). “I’m optimistic that we’re going to have enough good things in this package and enough good ways to pay for it that we’re going to get widespread support among the Democrats.”
Liberal leaders like Jayapal will be key to selling the nearly 100 members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus on the social spending package. With razor-thin majorities in both chambers, Pelosi can only lose three Democrats and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer must have the full support of his caucus to pass the spending bill in an evenly split Senate.
The two leaders haven’t entirely shored up that support yet: Jayapal told reporters that some progressives would still prefer a House vote on infrastructure pushed to next week, so that Democrats can vote on both of Biden’s priorities at once — and not risk being spurned by Senate centrists. Jayapal plans to meet with Pelosi later this week.
If progressives go along with the Manchin-Sinema compromise, it’s a remarkable climbdown for the left wing in a span of just a few weeks. Earlier this month, Jayapal confidently dismissed a price tag of $1.5 trillion, saying “that’s not going to happen.” Sanders said an expansion of Medicare to include vision, dental and hearing benefits was “not negotiable.”
Now, Pelosi, Schumer and Biden are finalizing the details of a deal with centrists that isn’t expected to go above $2 trillion and will include limited Medicare benefits expansion, if any, due to the high cost of dental care. Manchin said on Monday he still wants a $1.5 trillion bill, his position for three months.
Liberals have also lost their biggest priority on climate — a new clean energy program that Manchin blocked — as well as their signature drug plan, allowing Medicare to negotiate the cost of drug prices.
After Pelosi and Hoyer told their members Monday night to embrace the bill for what it was, not what they wanted it to be, many were happy to go along. Given the tiny margins the party faces in both chambers, they have no other choice if they want to actually send something to Biden’s desk.
“It depends on your point of view — if you start from $3.5 [trillion] and go down or start from zero and go up,” said Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) “The core components — climate change, helping families and extending access to health care — are all in there, so that’s a huge success.”
Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.
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