Bonnie Cash

Democrats are distancing themselves from high-profile progressive priorities as they threaten to push the party off message.

Progressives’ decision to bring two issues back into the national spotlight this week — defunding the police and expanding the Supreme Court — have forced other Democrats to go on defense as they field questions about ideas that suck up a lot of political oxygen but get little legislative traction on Capitol Hill.

Democrats have been quick to tamp down the chatter, arguing that they are focused on issues more in line with the party’s top message: infrastructure and coronavirus relief.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who said he wasn’t yet on board with expanding the Supreme Court, acknowledged that Republicans could seize on the progressive soundbites but that President Biden has “home field advantage” if he sticks with his legislative priorities.

“I’m sure that Rs will use it that way,” Kaine said about it being a political distraction. “I kind of know what my folks want me to focus on now, and it’s jobs and infrastructure.”  

Asked about the bill from his Democratic colleagues expanding the Supreme Court, Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a close ally of Biden’s, stressed that his focus was elsewhere.

“In the middle of working on infrastructure, China competitiveness, climate, if there is some big bipartisan bill to expand the Supreme Court, I’m not aware of it. If there’s some bill in the House, I am unsurprised,” he said.

Asked about the possibility that Republicans could try to use it against Democrats, he added: “This is not a subject on which I’m focused.”

Democrats have found themselves threatening to be pulled into a discussion on the progressive policies twice this week: First, Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) tweeted, “No more policing, incarceration and militarization. It can’t be reformed.”

Her tweet comes amid the murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the death of George Floyd, coupled with a fatal shooting of a 20-year-old Black man by police in a Minneapolis suburb during a routine traffic stop.

Tlaib added on Thursday that to SiriusXM’s The Joe Madison Show that it “doesn’t matter what terminology we use … it’s just not working.” 

But her tweet revived questions about “defunding the police” — a phrase that some Democrats have warned is over-simplistic and hurts their candidates down-ballot — for others in the party.

“I think that what we need to do is to understand that there needs to be major, major police reform all across this country,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) told CNN.

But asked if he agreed with Tlaib, he said, “No, I don’t.”

Other Democrats were careful not to dismiss Tlaib’s frustration as Capitol Hill grapples with race and the lack of progress toward ending the killings of Black Americans by police officers.

House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) said he didn’t think Tlaib’s comments were harmful, but that they weren’t the solution.

“I come out of a culture where people honor the police. But they want good policing,” he told CNN.

Clyburn days after the 2020 election had told CNN that the “defund the police” attacks had cost Democrats seats and could derail the Black Lives Matter movement.

He said he and the late Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) had discussed the matter prior to Lewis’s death and agreed that it “had the possibilities of doing to the Black Lives Matter movement and current movements across the country what ‘Burn, baby, burn’ did to us back in 1960.”

Progressives put their colleagues on the backfoot again Thursday when a group of House Democrats and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) unveiled legislation to expand the Supreme Court from nine justices to 13 justices.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said she doesn’t intend to give it a vote and was instead focused on infrastructure, Biden’s second big legislative priority.

“No. I support the president’s commission to study such a proposal, but frankly I’m not — right now, we’re back, our members, our committees are working. We’re putting together the infrastructure bill and the rest,” Pelosi said.

And Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat, said he wasn’t ready to sign on to the bill and that the party needs to be careful about how it talks about the court.

“I just heard about it. I’m not ready to sign on yet. I think this commission of Biden is the right move. Let’s think this through carefully. This is historic,” Durbin said, adding that he was not happy with Republicans’ tactics on the Supreme Court and wants “to make sure that our response to that is reasonable.”

The break between progressive lawmakers and their Democratic colleagues comes as ascendant liberals have gained newfound political muscle in the party, putting pressure on lawmakers to shift to satisfy their base. But some of the buzziest policy goals— defunding police, expanding the Supreme Court, a $15 per hour minimum wage, “Medicare for All,” the Green New Deal — don’t have the votes to pass in the Senate, with or without the 60-vote legislative filibuster.

Republicans, who have struggled to gain traction against Biden, view the detours offered by progressives this week as prime political fodder.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) wasted no time hounding Democrats over the Supreme Court expansion bill, arguing it was the latest sign of the party’s interest in changing the rules.

“The left wants these swords dangling over the Senate and state legislatures and independent judges. The threats are the point. The hostage-taking is the point. And responsible people across the political spectrum have a duty to denounce this,” he said.

The White House immediately distanced itself. Press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden isn’t “frustrated” with progressives but made it clear that the former longtime senator isn’t there yet on expanding the court.

“He certainly understands that members of Congress have a range of views, and they’re going to propose legislation. He may or may not support it,” Psaki said. “His view is that he wants to hear from this commission that has a range of viewpoints.” 

Tags Bernie Sanders Chris Coons Court-packing Dick Durbin Ed Markey Jen Psaki Jim Clyburn Joe Biden John Lewis Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi police reform progressives Rashida Tlaib Supreme Court Tim Kaine

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