Progressives fight for leverage amid ever-slimming majority

Progressives are ascendant in the Democratic-controlled Congress, but they may not have the political leverage to dramatically shape legislative priorities like President BidenJoe BidenWarren calls for US to support ceasefire between Israel and Hamas UN secretary general 'deeply disturbed' by Israeli strike on high rise that housed media outlets Nation's largest nurses union condemns new CDC guidance on masks MORE’s infrastructure and jobs package as they return to Washington this week with an even slimmer majority.

Democrats will need near-total cooperation among everyone in their House and Senate caucuses to pass any bills on their own without GOP support.

And while it means only a handful of Democrats can hold up a bill, it also means that they will all be under more pressure than ever to stick together.


"That's just what we're dealing with within the Democratic Party right now. We've got some diversity of opinion on [taxes], and we also have really thin margins," said Rep. Dan KildeeDaniel (Dan) Timothy KildeeUS files first trade complaint against Mexico over tampered union vote at GM plant NC House ending remote voting for lawmakers House GOP campaign arm adds to target list MORE (D-Mich.), the Democrats’ chief deputy whip and a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Kildee, a senior member of the House Way and Means Committee, acknowledged that some of the tensions between the ideological wings of the party are already surfacing over Biden's tax proposal, including the provision to hike the corporate tax rate from 21 percent to 28 percent. Many liberals want to raise that figure higher, while some moderates like Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinFormer OMB pick Neera Tanden to serve as senior adviser to Biden The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Masks off: CDC greenlights return to normal for vaccinated Americans Jill Biden, Jennifer Garner go mask-free on vaccine-promoting West Virginia trip MORE (D-W.Va.) are already balking that it's too high.

Given the party’s razor-thin margins, Kildee is offering this advice to his colleagues: Keep your powder dry while the debate evolves.

House Democrats already started the year with the thinnest majority in generations. Before three members resigned to join Biden’s administration and the death of Rep. Alcee HastingsAlcee (Judge) Lamar HastingsHouse Democrats unveil .9 billion bill to boost security after insurrection Carter sworn in as House member to replace Richmond, padding Democrats' majority Democrats cool on Crist's latest bid for Florida governor MORE (D-Fla.) last week, Democrats only could lose up to four of their own votes.

Now that already-meager voting cushion has been cut in half to two, while the vacancies won't be filled by special elections for months.

Meanwhile, the Senate is evenly split 50-50, with Vice President Harris representing the tie-breaking vote.


So far, centrists like Manchin have had outsized influence in demanding changes to bills when Democrats can’t afford more than a couple defections across both chambers.

Democratic leaders, mindful of protecting the swing-district centrists essential to keeping their majority in 2022, have limited the ability to allow legislation to veer too far to the left.

But since Democrats took back control of the House in 2018, the 92-member Progressive Caucus, led by Chairwoman Pramila JayapalPramila JayapalBiden spending plans hit speed bumps Overnight Health Care: CDC approves Pfizer vaccine for adolescents aged 12-15 | House moderates signal concerns with Pelosi drug pricing bill | Panel blasts COVID-19 response House moderates signal concerns with Pelosi drug pricing bill MORE (D-Wash.), has not been following in the mold of the conservative House Freedom Caucus. That far-right group was notorious for banding together to derail spending bills and even a GOP measure to repeal ObamaCare while Republicans led the chamber.

In fact, House Democrats passed most of their agenda last year with relatively few defections, despite having a much larger majority.

When Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiIncreasingly active younger voters liberalize US electorate Sunday shows preview: House GOP removes Cheney from leadership position; CDC issues new guidance for fully vaccinated Americans The Memo: Lawmakers on edge after Greene's spat with Ocasio-Cortez MORE (D-Calif.) brought a $1.5 trillion infrastructure and climate change package to the floor last year, only two centrist Democrats — Collin PetersonCollin Clark Peterson Progressives fight for leverage amid ever-slimming majority Six ways to visualize a divided America On The Trail: The political losers of 2020 MORE of Minnesota and Ben McAdams of Utah — broke with their party and voted "no." Both lost reelection last fall.

And when House Democrats passed the final COVID-19 relief package last month that had been amended by Senate moderates, for all the griping from progressives like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezWarren calls for US to support ceasefire between Israel and Hamas The Memo: Lawmakers on edge after Greene's spat with Ocasio-Cortez Sanders: Netanyahu has cultivated 'racist nationalism' MORE (D-N.Y.) about the changes, they only had one defection: centrist Rep. Jared Golden of Maine.

Asked why progressives have not flexed their political muscle more and threatened to kill Democratic bills to get more of their priorities, one progressive House aide replied: “Democrats believe in government. What’s the cost benefit” of blowing up a bill? “What’s the alternative?”

The Progressive Caucus had a similar number of members last year. But between the slimmer House majority and progressives replacing longtime incumbents like former Reps. Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelLawmakers on hot mic joke 'aisle hog' Engel absent from Biden address: 'He'd wait all day' Bowman to deliver progressive response to Biden's speech to Congress Liberal advocacy group stirs debate, discomfort with primary challenges MORE (N.Y.), Wm. Lacy ClayWilliam (Lacy) Lacy ClayLobbying world Ex-Rep. Clay joins law and lobbying firm Pillsbury Liberal advocacy group stirs debate, discomfort with primary challenges MORE (Mo.) and Nita LoweyNita Sue LoweyLobbying world Progressives fight for leverage amid ever-slimming majority Biden needs to tear down bureaucratic walls and refocus Middle East programs MORE (N.Y.), they are a potent force in the caucus.

Despite his reputation as a deal-cutting centrist, Biden’s proposals so far have been decidedly progressive; some Democrats and pundits are calling Biden’s agenda a “New New Deal,” inviting comparisons to former President Franklin Roosevelt. The American Rescue Plan that Biden signed into law injected nearly $2 trillion into the economy to help fight the COVID-19 pandemic and for emergency aid. Now his American Jobs Plan calls for a mammoth $2.25 trillion investment in things like transportation infrastructure, technology and the care economy, which includes child care and elder care.

While they may want to make tweaks around the edges, progressives don’t want to slow that massive government spending from getting out the door to their constituents and communities.

“We’re talking about a bill that makes historic investments in the care industry — that’s progressive gold!” the progressive aide said. “This is an industry that has been so long ignored and undervalued. Progressives are interested in the ability to change the paradigm in how we view care, not to mention climate investment.”

The Progressive Caucus on Friday outlined five priorities for the infrastructure debate: establishing universal access to child care as well as paid family and medical leave; investments in public housing and renewable energy; lowering drug prices; and outlining a pathway to citizenship for certain immigrants.


“These priorities will strengthen this critical bill and fulfill our promises to the American people. It’s time to go big and it’s time to go bold, and enact these as part of a single, ambitious package,” Jayapal said in a statement.

But notably, the Progressive Caucus didn’t draw any red lines in contrast to three House Democrats from high-tax blue states — Reps. Josh GottheimerJoshua (Josh) GottheimerFinancial market transactions should not be taxed or restricted Manchin on infrastructure: 'We're gonna find a bipartisan pathway forward' House moderates signal concerns with Pelosi drug pricing bill MORE (N.J.), Tom Suozzi (N.Y.) and Bill PascrellWilliam (Bill) James PascrellUS files first trade complaint against Mexico over tampered union vote at GM plant Senate Democrats offer bill to scrap tax break for investment managers America's Jewish communities are under attack — Here are 3 things Congress can do MORE (N.J.) — who vowed to oppose any changes to the tax code unless the $10,000 cap on state and local tax (SALT) deductions enacted as part of the 2017 tax law is repealed.

They went as far as declaring: “No SALT, no deal.”

While progressives aren’t going as far at this initial stage of talks, they’re nevertheless asserting themselves as a critical part of any coalition for an infrastructure package that they want to be as liberal as possible.

“Progressives are digging in and will not fold,” said one progressive lawmaker.

Mike Lillis contributed.