Emboldened progressives are doubling down on their aggressive strategy after an early victory over centrists, suggesting they see that approach as a winner in the intraparty fight.
Liberal lawmakers in the House and Senate are calling for social safety net programs to be as universal as possible, pushing back against centrist Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinSanders on Medicare expansion in spending package: 'Its not coming out' Glasgow summit raises stakes for Biden deal Sunday shows preview: CDC signs off on 'mix and match' vaccine boosters MORE’s (D-W.Va.) calls for programs to be “means-tested” and targeted toward the lowest-income households.
They also want programs that provide benefits to families to start as quickly as possible, rather than have a delayed start date in an effort to minimize the price tag.
Liberals won an early battle with centrists when the bipartisan infrastructure bill passed by the Senate was put on mothballs for a month; centrists had been demanding a vote.
This week they appeared to win for a second time when Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiSunday shows preview: CDC signs off on 'mix and match' vaccine boosters Buttigieg aims to use Tucker Carlson flap to spotlight paternity leave Judge to hear Trump's case against Jan. 6 committee in November MORE (D-Calif.) quickly walked back comments that suggested she preferred moderates’ preferred approach to cutting the cost of the safety net package.
The overall cost of the reconciliation package is going to have to be cut down from the $3.5 trillion mark championed by Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders on Medicare expansion in spending package: 'Its not coming out' Briahna Joy Gray: Biden must keep progressive promises or risk losing midterms Overnight Health Care — Presented by Carequest — Study finds Pfizer vaccine almost 91 percent effective for 5 to 11 year olds MORE (I-Vt.) and other progressives in order to win the support of Manchin, Sen. Kyrsten SinemaKyrsten SinemaSunday shows preview: CDC signs off on 'mix and match' vaccine boosters Buttigieg aims to use Tucker Carlson flap to spotlight paternity leave Biden injects new momentum into filibuster fight MORE (D-Ariz.) and some centrist Democrats in the House.
A number of moderate Democrats would prefer that fewer items be funded for a longer period of time.
But progressives don’t want the cuts to come from eliminating new forms of aid and other programs that they want to launch. They argue that priorities such as child care and education will be popular with the public, so lawmakers will feel pressure to extend any temporary programs once they begin.
"If given a choice between legislating narrowly or broadly, we strongly encourage you to choose the latter, and make robust investments over a shorter window," Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) leadership said in a letter to Pelosi Wednesday.
Progressives are holding firm on some of the specific items they want included in the measure, too. Most notably, they are insisting that the bill include expanding Medicare to cover dental, vision and hearing care.
“This to me is not negotiable,” Sanders said on a press call Tuesday.
Rep. Pramila JayapalPramila JayapalWhich proposals will survive in the Democrats' spending plan? Proposals to reform supports for parents face chopping block Democrats see light at end of tunnel on Biden agenda MORE (D-Wash.), the CPC chair, then said on the call that Sanders’s comments are “the position of the House progressive caucus.”
“We're just there to keep trying to get as much as possible and make sure the right priorities are there,” Rep. Mark PocanMark William PocanFox's Bill Hemmer to Democrat: 'Do you consider yourself a capitalist or a socialist?' Progressives say go big and make life hard for GOP Left doubles down on aggressive strategy MORE (D-Wis.), a former chair of the group, said later that day.
The progressive caucus has grown in recent years to nearly 100 members, and its ability to shape policy is heightened by the fact that Democrats have a very narrow majority in the House.
The clout of the progressives was clear in the fight over the infrastructure bill vote, and it was clear again this week.
In a letter to House Democrats on Monday, Pelosi said that “overwhelmingly, the guidance I am receiving from Members is to do fewer things well.” But during a press conference the very next morning, Pelosi clarified that the first way Democrats would likely reduce the size of the bill is “that the timing would be reduced in many cases.”
Progressives have repeatedly argued that by supporting a wide-ranging and ambitious social-spending package, they are fighting for Biden’s agenda. The White House offered two major economic proposals earlier this year called the American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan, and much of both of those plans serve as the basis for lawmakers’ intended social-spending bill.
“I want to be clear, this $3.5 trillion budget resolution is not some fringe wish list,” Jayapal said Tuesday afternoon during a call with several progressive senators. “It is no more, and no less, than the president’s agenda, one that the American people gave Democrats the House, the Senate and the White House to deliver.”
While many progressives are acknowledging that the bill will be less than $3.5 trillion, they’re downplaying the discussions over the top-line number, instead seeking to shift the focus to the contents of the bill.
“We really try to not use the number. We keep saying what’s in the bill,” Pocan said.
The Medicare expansion, which is viewed as a particularly expensive item, is shaping up to be another fight.
Some moderates have said they think the priority on health care should be to strengthen ObamaCare.
Medicare expansion wasn’t included in the Biden administration’s American Families Plan earlier this year. The House Ways and Means Committee last month advanced legislation that would start vision coverage in 2022 and hearing coverage in 2023, but wouldn’t start coverage of dental care until 2028.
When asked about the start date for dental coverage, Pocan acknowledged that some of the programs are going to be “tougher to move them up considerably more,” but said that the CPC wants to prevent proposed spending items from having their start dates postponed.
Medicare expansion, paid through savings from drug-price changes, is one of five main policy priorities for the spending package that the CPC first articulated in the spring. The other four are strengthening the care economy, investments in affordable housing, action to address climate change and helping immigrant communities.
Progressives say they are fully aware that they will need the support of all 50 Democratic senators to get the package to Biden’s desk.
Jayapal suggested the holdup centered on disagreements between the two centrist senators, Manchin and Sinema. The rest of the party, particularly progressives, is unified, she said.
“At the end of the day, look, they have to agree with each other. They don't agree with each other right now, but 98 percent of us agree ... the House Democrats, Senate Democrats, the president and the majority of the American people,” Jayapal, who has not heard from Sinema in several weeks, told reporters Tuesday evening.
“So we're waiting for them to agree with each other and come to us with a counter proposal and then we'll look at it.”