House

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 Biden'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 Kildee (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 Manchin (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 Hastings (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 Jayapal (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 Pelosi (D-Calif.) brought a $1.5 trillion infrastructure and climate change package to the floor last year, only two centrist Democrats - Collin Peterson 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-Cortez (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 Engel (N.Y.), Wm. Lacy Clay (Mo.) and Nita Lowey (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 Gottheimer (N.J.), Tom Suozzi (N.Y.) and Bill Pascrell (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.

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