Biden makes inroads with progressives

President Biden has established an early working relationship with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, satisfying a group that was skeptical of him during the campaign with an aggressive agenda in his first weeks in office.

Biden campaigned as a moderate in a primary field of progressive stalwarts including Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). When opponents attempted to brand him as a socialist, he shot back, “I beat the socialist.”

But the president has managed to win over much of the progressive wing of the party in the early going through regular outreach, executive orders on climate and immigration, and a commitment to a $1.9 trillion relief package.

“There are certainly areas we’re continuing to talk to them and push them on, but generally it’s been a good productive relationship, and we feel like many of the priorities of progressives that benefit working people and poor people across the country are really getting addressed and spoken to even in these first two weeks,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), who chairs the 94-member Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Early and consistent outreach from the White House has been key in building trust with progressives on Capitol Hill, officials said.

One of the first calls Louisa Terrell made as Biden’s director of legislative affairs was to the Progressive Caucus. The group has also met with Domestic Policy Council Director Susan Rice and National Economic Council Director Brian Deese, among others.

The Sunrise Movement, a progressive group focused on climate change, has been in regular contact with members of Biden’s climate team.

Progressives have been satisfied with Biden’s choice of Ron Klain as his chief of staff, preferring him as a voice who would bring progressive ideas to the table in contrast to Rahm Emanuel, who served as former President Obama’s chief of staff from 2009 to 2010. 

“If we want to have unity on a bill that is a priority for the president, I say the same thing that I say to leadership, which is, consult us early and often,” Jayapal said.

Officials say progressive priorities have been reflected in Biden’s early actions, thanks in part to the recommendations of unity task forces between the former presidential campaigns of Biden and Sanders.

Biden delivered progressive groups wins by revoking the permit for the Keystone XL Pipeline, signing an executive order to end the use of private prisons in the criminal justice system and pushing to include an increase in the minimum wage in the economic relief proposal.

“It really does tell us that Biden is listening and is committed to using his full executive power. And while this is a great step forward we also are very aware this is just the beginning of what needs to get done,” said Ellen Sciales, press secretary for the Sunrise Movement.

The Democratic Party has so far been unified in its push for a robust relief package even without Republican support, weary of repeating the mistakes of the Obama administration when a stimulus package was narrowed to garner GOP votes in 2009 in response to the Great Recession. Any talk of Democrats in disarray has also been overshadowed by infighting among House Republicans. 

“The basic lesson of the Obama White House was they never regretted when they went bold and they almost always regretted when they slow walked or watered down popular ideas under the illusory hope that Republicans like [Maine Sen.] Susan Collins would deal in good faith,” said Adam Green, cofounder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, who commended Biden for sticking by his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief proposal.

But progressive groups and lawmakers have made clear they will push Biden on key issues, setting up potential fractures in the party as the president navigates the rest of his term.

Green’s group is pressing for the relief bill to fund full $2,000 stimulus payments to some Americans, after Democrats campaigned on them in the Georgia Senate runoffs. Biden’s proposal includes $1,400 checks that add to $600 payments already signed into law in December by former President Trump.

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) led a group of more than 50 progressive Democratic lawmakers who penned a letter to Biden late last month urging him to support recurring monthly direct payments to Americans during the pandemic.

The Congressional Progressive Caucus will pressure the White House to extend the ban on private prisons to the immigration system and act on student loan debt relief, Jayapal said. The White House said Thursday it is reviewing what actions Biden might be able to take unilaterally to forgive federal student loans amid the pandemic.

The filibuster, which requires 60 votes to close debate on legislation, is another point of tension, though with Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) opposed to eliminating it, Democrats do not now have the votes to do away with it.

Dozens of progressive groups nonetheless wrote to Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Friday urging him to end the filibuster, which they called a “weapon of pure partisan gridlock.”

Tensions could also persist over certain staffing moves in the administration. Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) late last year criticized the makeup of Biden’s Cabinet and whether progressives were being rewarded for their role in helping Biden to the White House.

Progressives have been satisfied with some of Biden’s nominees to Cabinet and other high-level positions, including Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) to lead the Interior Department, Xavier Becerra to serve as Secretary of Health and Human Services, and Marcia Fudge as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. 

Some progressives also waged a campaign against Mike Morell for CIA director, a position for which Biden ultimately nominated veteran career diplomat William Burns. 

“We’ve won a bunch of these fights, but it doesn’t make any sense that some of the people we were having to fight against were ever in the running,” said David Segal, executive director of Demand Progress. “The idea that Biden’s team would have ever considered installing Morell at CIA is another signal we need to be very watchful in the national security realm despite them having made the seemingly better choice of Burns.” 

Segal said that overall the nominations went better than expected but described them as far from perfect. He raised concerns about Agriculture Secretary nominee Tom Vilsack’s work for the U.S. Dairy Export Council, Commerce Secretary nominee Gina Raimondo’s ties to Wall Street, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s consulting work at WestExec Advisors.

Biden is also facing pressure to more forcefully root out individuals from the government who were installed under former President Trump. Jeff Hauser, executive director of the Revolving Door Project, noted in particular that most of the U.S. attorneys appointed under Trump remain in place and also argued that FBI Director Christopher Wray should be fired in light of the security failure at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. The White House said last month that Biden would keep Wray on in his position. 

“We’re disconcerted by the number of Trump officials still in power,” Hauser said. 


Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Antony Blinken Bernie Sanders Biden cabinet Brian Deese Charles Schumer Christopher Wray Climate change Deb Haaland Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Filibuster Gina Raimondo Ilhan Omar Joe Manchin Louisa Terrell Marcia Fudge Pramila Jayapal Ron Klain Susan Collins Susan Rice Tom Vilsack William Burns Xavier Becerra
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