Progressives say go big and make life hard for GOP
Progressives have a new argument for why their push for a broad array of social benefit programs is the right approach for President Biden and Democrats: It will put Republicans in a prickly spot if they fight to end the benefits down the road.
Liberals maintain that once voters receive federal perks like expanded child tax credits and Medicare, family leave and free college tuition, they will demand that Congress extend those benefits when it comes time for them to sunset.
They point to former President Obama’s Affordable Care Act as the blueprint.
That bill was unpopular when it passed but became politically difficult for Republicans to unwind, even when they held the White House and both chambers of Congress.
Of course, it also contributed greatly to the shellacking Obama and Democrats took in the 2010 midterms, when they lost their House majority in a historic defeat. Democrats now have a much slimmer majority, one they are in danger of losing next year.
Problems with ObamaCare’s rollout were also a factor in the party’s loss of the Senate in the 2014 midterms.
But to progressives, who are intent on attaining their preferred policies at a time when they hold power, the short-term political pitfalls are less concerning. These progressives, many of whom represent solidly blue districts, also argue the embrace of those policies is the best way to win elections.
The debate over the length of programs has emerged as a crucial and divisive one as Democratic leaders race to limit the cost of the package.
“Many of us believe that once families have access to child care, once employees have access to paid family leave, once we begin certain programs, that it will be very challenging for Republicans to cut them off — just as it was challenging for them to end the ACA,” progressive Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas) told The Hill.
Escobar said she’s fully aware some proposed programs would be easy targets for Republicans to “terminate” so Democrats need to be “flexible.” But she warned: “I don’t think we unilaterally should say let’s just do these three or four or five things and abandon everything else.”
Not all Democrats agree, and some of the detractors are powerful voices in the caucus.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), head of the House Appropriations Committee, which would be charged with allocating the funds to extend any expiring programs, cited concerns about the creation of impending policy cliffs — a worry strong enough that DeLauro says she’d prefer to narrow the scope of the social spending bill, while prolonging the programs it creates.
“I’m of the school of thought that we should focus in on several of the areas that will have the biggest impact on people. And then look to see how we can phase in the other pieces,” she said.
DeLauro then summarized her preferred strategy: “Fewer programs, longer duration.”
That tactical disagreement stands as one of the most significant hurdles facing Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other Democratic leaders as they scramble to rally their restive troops behind Biden’s Build Back Better agenda.
Party leaders intend to move the social benefits package by a special budget process, known as reconciliation, which empowers them to sidestep the Senate filibuster and move the legislation without any Republican support. But with the slimmest of majorities in both the House and Senate, they’ll need virtual unanimity behind the policy prescriptions to get the package — along with a less contentious infrastructure proposal — to Biden’s desk.
As mediator between the feuding factions, Pelosi is taking pains to resolve the differences and win an agreement that can pass through both chambers. In a letter to Democrats on Monday, the Speaker seemed to side with the “less-is-more” camp, suggesting that some of the programs in Biden’s initial $3.5 trillion package might be eliminated altogether. In doing so, she advanced the idea of prioritizing child benefits and efforts to tackle climate change.
“Overwhelmingly, the guidance I am receiving from Members is to do fewer things well,” she wrote.
The next morning, however, Pelosi appeared to change her tune, saying her first cost-cutting strategy will be not to prune benefit programs, but to scale back their longevity. In explaining her reasoning, she cited pushback from liberal lawmakers who want to go broad in scope.
“Some members have written back to me and said, ‘I want to do everything.’ So we’ll have that discussion,” Pelosi said. “The timing would be reduced in many cases to make the cost lower.”
Leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) are pressing the Speaker to follow through with that design. In a letter sent to Pelosi on Wednesday, more than two dozen CPC members urged her to keep the broad contours of the reconciliation package, even if it means squeezing the benefit timelines.
“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,” wrote the liberals, led by CPC Chairwoman Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.).
Republicans are no strangers to the tactic.
In 2017, as part of their tax code overhaul, they also faced a price-tag dilemma created by their decision to tap reconciliation to move the controversial legislation without any Democratic support. In that case, GOP leaders shortened the window of one of the most popular provisions — a middle-class tax cut — while making the less marketable corporate tax benefits permanent.
The discrepancy meant that Republicans would not be forced to extend the corporate cuts at a later date — a heavier lift, given public sentiment — while leaving Democrats to weigh the fate of the middle-class benefit when it expires at the end of 2025.
But Republicans have faced their own set of setbacks trying to cut benefits. During the past decade, they waged war against Obama’s health care law in the courts and on Capitol Hill. But ObamaCcare has survived multiple Supreme Court challenges, and when the GOP had their best shot at repealing the law in 2017, Republicans fell one vote short, with then-Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) famously giving a thumbs down and siding with the Democrats.
“It would be very hard for people to take things away, and that’s part of our goal,” said Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), another leading progressive. “Once people see how popular these things are … many of these debates are the same debates we had when you created Social Security and other programs. And once people got them, you saw how wildly popular [they were]. We think some of these are going to be in that wildly popular category.”
“That’s why we want to keep them out there, even if it’s for a little bit of shortened time, because once people start to see it,” they will support it, Pocan continued. “The child tax credit is a classic example. I mean [look] how popular it is right now; it’s a lot easier for us to extend that out.”