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Progressives look to regroup after Build Back Better blowup

Progressives are channeling their contempt for Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) toward the midterms, stressing that they must consider other ways to deliver Build Back Better and talk up existing achievements in order to keep the trust of their constituents.

When Manchin proclaimed on national television that he would vote against President Biden’s social safety net legislation, liberal lawmakers were among the most enraged. They had warned for months about the perils that could follow one crippling “no” vote in the Senate, and suggested he was not negotiating with the administration in a reasonable manner.

Now, up against the frightening prospect that much of what Democrats promised could implode in mere days, progressives are seeking out ways to salvage what appears to be slipping away heading into 2022.

“We absolutely are going to do that,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told The Hill when asked if she expects to see a strategic shift from Democrats in Congress and administration officials toward touting items that have already been checked off the to-do list.

Jayapal has been in close contact with Biden as the fraught negotiations have dragged on. The pair talked late last week about formulating comprehensive talking points to let voters know what Democrats have already done under tough circumstances.

“The president said to me when he called me last Thursday that they were working on making sure we have a really big education campaign about exactly what we’ve accomplished,” Jayapal said.

“There’s no contradiction in talking about what we have accomplished under a Democratic president and Democratic Congress and also talking about what we still need to do.”

The latter half is, of course, more daunting for the party in power. And if the worst-case scenario happens — where members are left hobbling into the new year with low presidential poll numbers, a contagious new coronavirus variant and a broken pledge to address many of the nation’s social problems — she is also working on more drastic avenues to minimize the damage.

On Monday night, Jayapal convened a meeting about the possibility of urging the White House to sign pieces of the package through executive action. She told reporters she intends to ask Biden to contemplate going that route, arguing that lawmakers “cannot trust what Sen. Manchin says.”

To be sure, the administration and congressional Democrats are pleased with a number of items they see as consequential and timely. On the pandemic, their main focus, Biden signed an urgent $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief rescue bill while getting the vaccination rate in the 70 percent range.

They also saw big traction on unemployment. According to figures released by the White House this month, just 2 million people filed for unemployment, compared to nearly 10 times that amount at the start of Biden’s first term. 

Those immediate gains were on top of a landmark $1 trillion bill to repair and expand physical infrastructure systems across the country.

Some progressives, including Jayapal, see a benefit to the strategy they stuck with during months of back and forth. They insist that their approach — in which the majority of liberals agreed to “delink” Build Back Better from the bipartisan infrastructure bill in order to get it passed — forced Manchin to stay in the negotiations a bit longer.

“Joe Manchin ended the year by proving progressives and their desire to use leverage to get something done completely right,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “He basically proved the point that the Progressive Caucus was right to exert maximum leverage possible to get right up to the finish line.”

Still, others suggested it’s better to back away from the mammoth bill until the dust settles. Those in that camp believe there’s more merit to discussing policies that have proven to be electorally effective for Democrats, including protecting abortion rights, which have come under assault from conservatives in recent weeks.

“It would have been incredible to go into 2022 with BBB and all the critical support it provides for regular Americans. But that’s not going to happen,” said Max Burns, a Democratic strategist, assessing the severity and apparent finality of Manchin’s comments to “Fox News Sunday” over the weekend.

“Democrats need to remember there ARE other winning issues out there. They aren’t doomed just because Manchin knifed BBB. Democrats still stand behind a host of very popular issues.”

Other progressives, however, are less willing to move on so quickly.

They see the legislative firewall Manchin has created as temporary, and some are choosing to view the for-now failed attempt to get enough support to pass Biden’s biggest spending bill as a way to entice more progressive outsiders to Capitol Hill. That’s the only longer-term way to recalibrate the party’s power dynamic, they say. 

Throughout the president’s term in office, major priorities have been stalled and effectively killed off by primarily two moderate Democrats, Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.). While Manchin has received much attention for his objections to expanding certain social programs, including the poverty-reducing child tax credit, he has also expressed concerns about a range of other Democratic Party top lines — from raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour to forgiving student loan debt, and, most infuriating to many across the ideological spectrum, reforming the filibuster to protect voting rights.

Progressives say Manchin’s decision to throw Build Back Better into jeopardy further underscores the need to expand the left-wing bench, particularly in the upper chamber.

“Next year, we’re looking to double down on our work, essentially, and to elect more folks to the House, but also it’s to send folks like Mandela Barnes and Malcolm Kenyatta to the Senate so that one or two folks can’t derail an agenda that is popular and supported by literally millions of people,” said A.J. Springer, communications manager for the Working Families Party.

Barnes, who is considered the front-runner in the Wisconsin Democratic Senate primary, called the Senate “so broken” in a fundraising video released the day after Manchin’s remarks.

One grassroots group aligned with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) went as far as to say Manchin blew up “Bernie’s budget” in a scathing email blast to supporters. The organization is now working on developing its own progressive priority blueprint and actively searching for more left-wing candidates.

Sanders, the Senate Budget Committee chairman, was among the most publicly upset about Manchin’s stunning pronouncement.

“We’re crowdsourcing our 2022 platform,” said Joseph Geevarghese, executive director of Our Revolution. “We’ve run surveys this whole month among our membership and are in the process of putting that together and finalizing it.”

The group joins a handful of other progressive campaign organizations that have started tweaking their public pitches after Manchin’s move to thwart the legislation.

“For a lot of progressive groups, the messaging when it comes to online fundraising and volunteer support for Senate candidates switched from ‘Save the Senate’ to ‘Eliminate Joe Manchin’s veto by expanding the Senate with real progressives,’ ” Green said.

Green also noted that this strategy applies to the House as well, where he said it makes sense for progressives to primary the group of moderate Democrats who pushed to pass Build Back Better and the bipartisan infrastructure package separately.

“One lesson from this year after seeing the [Rep.] Josh Gottheimer [D-N.J.] gang, which was largely comprised of people who won by very safe margins in their districts, possibly tank the Democratic agenda, a lot of grassroots activists will get the point that we need to engage in primaries against the [Reps.] Henry Cuellars [D-Texas] and the Ed Cases [D-Hawaii] of the world,” he said.

Both Cuellar and Case are facing primary challenges from the left.

But some election analysts also believe there’s a risk to taking that approach.

Requiring a mandatory vote on the legislation as it stands could put moderate Senate Democratic incumbents in a tough spot due to Manchin’s very public opposition, according to a new report by the Cook Political Report’s Amy Walter. That sentiment contributes to an ongoing debate about how to handle some of Congress’s most vulnerable members.

Walter notes that Republicans, in search of material against the opposition, could grab Manchin’s televised remarks warning the legislation could damage the economy and raise energy costs to hurt moderate Democrats as they inch towards tough incumbencies.

Many progressives aren’t willing to go there. Some of the loudest voices on the left, including members of the “squad,” suggested there absolutely needs to be a vote to give working Americans something tangible.

“When a handful of us in the House warned this would happen if Dem leaders gave Manchin everything he wanted 1st by moving BIF before BBB instead of passing together, many ridiculed our position,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) wrote on Twitter.

“Maybe they’ll believe us next time. Or maybe people will just keep calling us naïve.”

Tags 2022 Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Bernie Sanders Build Back Better Joe Biden Joe Manchin Josh Gottheimer Kyrsten Sinema Pramila Jayapal progressives

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