Many progressives are now backing a new social and environmental bill. It’s not as big or bold as they want, but thanks to a powerful group of moderate party members who have had a disproportionate influence in shaping it.
In August, Democrats overcame all Republican opposition and passed a $3.5 trillion 10-year fiscal plan through Congress. The actual package, which reflects President Joe Biden’s hopes for strengthening health care, family service, and climate change efforts, is likely to be half as large. Some of the most prized programs, such as free community college or fines for utilities that use carbon-spewing fuels, are being canceled.
The fraught math of a divided Congress, in which Democrats need all their votes at the 50-50 Senate but near unanimity in Congress, is what gives Moderates their clout. This has made centrist senators. Joe Manchin from West Virginia and Krysten Silena of Arizona are power brokers who their colleagues fear will vote no if they’re unhappy, thereby destroying Biden’s agenda as well as the party’s prospects for next year’s midterm elections.
Progressives are reluctantly considering whether it is time to be pragmatic and back a compromise, instead of waiting for party leaders to make a deal and move the legislation within days.
Another benefit of an agreement is that it would allow for final House approval of a bipartisan, Senate-approved $1 billion packages of road, water, and broadband projects. Progressives have been sidetracked in order to force moderates to support the larger economic bill.
“Of course I don’t like it,” said progressive Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, of the outsize influence moderates have had in compressing the package and erasing some of its provisions. “These are all things that we’ve been fighting for. For decades.” But she said with Democrat unity needed, the party should use the bill to “open the door” to its priorities and then try extending and expanding them later.
“At the end of the day we have to accomplish something, we have to deal with the reality in which we’re living,” liberal Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., chairman of the House Rules Committee and an ally of House leaders, said of his party’s slender congressional margins. “So the question is would we prefer not getting anything, or would we prefer something that can at least be a down payment on some of the transformational programs that we want.”
A few moderates in the Senate and House are not expressing concerns about the Social and Environment Bill, which has prompted strong feelings from colleagues.
“At some point, you have to realize that legislating requires respect for the rest of the people you’re working with,” Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky., a progressive and chairman of the House Budget Committee, said of Manchin and Sinema. “And when you have forced a 50% cut essentially in a giant program, I think you’ve done a disservice to all the people you serve with.”
Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), a freshman representative, said, “I’m pissed,” and singled out Manchin. “It’s unacceptable that one person can hold all the power and make decisions that will destroy my district and other districts across the country.
Manchin has tried to limit the benefits of the bill to those with lower incomes. Manchin insists on a $1.5 trillion overall price tag, but Tuesday he said to reporters that he does not know “where it will end up”. Because West Virginia is heavily dependent on coal production, he forced Democrats to drop language that penalizes utilities for not moving away from polluting fuels. He also rewarded those who do. This was a key pillar of their climate plan.
Sinema insists on reducing the bill’s costs. Sinema also opposes the Democrats’ original plan to finance a large portion of the bill by increasing income tax rates for the wealthy and corporations. This prompted them to look at other options, such as imposing new levies upon billionaires’ wealth. However, she stated that she supports a minimum tax for large corporations.
Although progressives are touting the benefits of the measure, they are not the only ones who have begun to do so. Late efforts are being made to rescue or strengthen teetering plans like expanded Medicare and Medicaid coverage, paid family leave, and Medicare negotiating lower drug prices with pharmaceutical companies.
“The vast majority of our priorities are in,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., who leads the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “But there’s a couple of areas where that’s still not the case. And so what we’ll continue to do is push as hard as we can.”
Climate change, housing, Medicare expansion, and helping immigrants become citizens are the priorities of the 95-member group. Democrats have had difficulty including immigration provisions. Also, efforts to add new hearing, vision, and dental benefits to Medicare were unsuccessful.
Progressive outside groups are urging people to continue fighting for a stronger plan.
Leah Greenberg is the executive director of Indivisible. Indivisible is a grassroots advocacy organization. She said that Sinema and Manchin are “enabling an agenda which’s out of sync with the Democratic Party.” Ellen Sciales, the spokesperson of the Sunrise Movement, an organization made up of young environmental activists, stated that watering down climate change provisions will be “a death sentence” for her generation.
Top congressional Democrats, including Biden, are pressing to end
“We are on the verge of something major. Transformative, historic and bigger than anything else,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told Democrats at a closed-door meeting Tuesday, according to a person familiar with the session who would only describe it on condition of anonymity.
“I kind of think that’s transformative and historic,” Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., another member of House leadership, said of the measure’s components.