Progressives' optimism for large reforms dwindles

Progressives’ optimism for seismic social change has dwindled this week as lawmakers stare down a stagnant Congress and increasingly impatient White House. 

From voting rights and immigration reform to criminal justice and student debt relief, Democrats say the party is at risk of seeing its majorities evaporate by failing to deliver on public promises, a projection that has prompted fear and finger-pointing among President BidenJoe BidenDearborn office of Rep. Debbie Dingell vandalized Pfizer to apply for COVID-19 booster approval for 16- and 17-year-olds: report Coronavirus variant raises fresh concerns for economy MORE’s most loyal base.

“We showed up and risked arrest to try and get the White House to do more on the filibuster,” said Jana Morgan, director of the Declaration for American Democracy, a grassroots progressive network. 

ADVERTISEMENT

“On Tuesday, I was arrested with 24 other people. We were willing to put our bodies on the line because this issue is fundamental and foundational to the continued success of our country,” she said.

The crux of the issue for many is voting rights. 

Biden administration officials and lawmakers on Capitol Hill have prioritized legislation to protect one of the country’s most basic principles with uneven attention. When a critical bill is up for a vote, Democrats rally around its passage, waxing philosophical about its importance to the fragile fate of the nation. 

But when Senate Republicans vote against any attempts to debate the measure, like they did this week with the Freedom to Vote Act, the discussion usually falls to the back of the burner.  

All the while, advocates keep screaming in unison about getting something done. 

“America is backsliding into autocracy,” Morgan said. “This is not just ‘an issue.’ It is the issue.”

ADVERTISEMENT

“What we need is to know that there is a real considered strategy in place on this and a real determination from the White House to do whatever it takes,” she said. 

Republicans’ veto of the latest voting rights bill wasn’t the first time they have stopped Democrats’ plans. Earlier GOP-led attempts to stall legislation have been equally effective and Democrats accuse their Republican colleagues of promoting voting restrictions in a bid to help them win elections. 

Democrats widely worry that a crucial part of democracy will disintegrate if legislation is not passed to protect it. 

On paper, Biden is sympathetic to that sentiment. On Wednesday, he released a statement indicating that upholding voting rights is an “urgent” matter to his administration and “the very soul of America is at stake.” 

And on Thursday night, he took his boldest step yet to acknowledge that filibuster reform to pass voting bills is something he could live with. Answering a question by CNN moderator Anderson Cooper during a primetime town hall about whether he would contemplate “fundamentally altering” the practice, Biden indicated he was open to that “and maybe more.” 

But Sens. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinSchumer: 'Goal' is to pass Biden spending bill before Christmas The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden to update Americans on omicron; Congress back This week: Congress starts year-end legislative sprint MORE (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten SinemaKyrsten SinemaSchumer: 'Goal' is to pass Biden spending bill before Christmas No deal in sight as Congress nears debt limit deadline Democratic frustration growing over stagnating voting rights bills MORE (D-Ariz.) have crimped the only realistic way to pass voting legislation in an evenly divided Senate with no Republican support, vocally opposing getting rid of the filibuster. 

Activists have long contended that Biden, a veteran of the Senate, is well aware of that predicament and want to see him get even more involved than his posture this week. If that means twisting Manchin and Sinema’s arms behind-the-scenes, they say, so be it. 

“It’s certainly not where I’d like for it to be,” said Martin Luther King III, a human rights activist. “We’d all like for these provisions, these bills to pass. But at least we still have hope.” 

Enthusiasm around the president’s massive budget package has also dimmed as talk of trimming crucial elements continues into another week. The left’s once vibrant momentum to move the country out of former President TrumpDonald TrumpPence: Supreme Court has chance to right 'historic wrong' with abortion ruling Prosecutor says during trial that actor Jussie Smollett staged 'fake hate crime' Overnight Defense & National Security — US, Iran return to negotiating table MORE’s shadow has been met with a new cynicism that the administration and Congress might mess it all up.

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiNews media's sausage-making obsession helps no one Klobuchar confident spending bill will be finished before Christmas Five reasons for Biden, GOP to be thankful this season MORE (D-Calif.) said on Thursday that her caucus was close to reaching a “framework” on reconciliation after days of negotiations past her initial deadline. Progressives have insisted that certain provisions like extending the child tax credit and keeping a strong paid family leave component intact were important as lawmakers discuss what to pare down. 

But Manchin didn’t see a quick end to the contentious conversations. 

“This is not going to happen anytime soon, guys,” the West Virginia Democrat told huddled reporters.

ADVERTISEMENT

As heated talks continue between the two centrist holdouts in the Senate and Biden administration officials, progressives are becoming more exasperated with the state of affairs. 

“We have a once in a generation chance to meet a moment of crisis that working people are in,” said Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, which represents millions of workers nationally. 

Henry told The Hill that her union is now focused largely on mobilizing around some of Biden’s top ticket items, particularly on immigration reform and climate justice. 

“We are determined and fighting like hell,” she said when asked to assess the mood of her members over the staleness in Washington.

“We’re fighting alongside the immigration movement on trying to make progress for a path to citizenship for immigrants, we are fighting alongside the climate movement for addressing the existential threat that impact our members and a lot of low income working people who are on the frontlines of these weather disasters,” Henry said.  

One of the biggest areas of frustration continues to revolve around climate, and the anger has only escalated in recent days as Manchin has drawn a red line over the issue that directly impacts his state’s coal-centric economy. The moderate senator has said that he does not support major parts of Biden’s climate agenda, infuriating both climate hawks and liberal lawmakers who see rising temperatures as a massive threat. 

ADVERTISEMENT

Biden is again one of the Democrats in that camp. He has regularly called for expansive measures to address rising temperatures, and on Thursday, senior administration officials acknowledged on a call with reporters that “no country will be spared from the challenges directly related to climate change.” 

The pressure comes ahead of a critical trip abroad for Biden to address world leaders at a climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland.

Other reforms that were once top of the agenda have also been shuffled aside, with some seeming to drop off completely. 

Early into his administration, advocates pushed Biden to cancel a portion of student loan debt for the millions of people affected by it. The move had some high-profile backers, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck SchumerChuck SchumerLawmakers take aim at 'Grinches' using bots to target consumers during holidays Democratic frustration growing over stagnating voting rights bills Schumer mourns death of 'amazing' father MORE (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenSenate GOP blocks defense bill, throwing it into limbo Restless progressives eye 2024 Poll: Harris, Michelle Obama lead for 2024 if Biden doesn't run MORE (D-Mass.), who urged the administration to wipe out upwards of $50,000 per student. 

Months later, that debate has all but disappeared and is in a bucket with other policies that many Democrats believe would be nice to have, but not essential, like a federal minimum wage increase to $15 an hour, which didn’t pass Congress, and certain criminal justice reforms. 

“There’s a dissonance with the pronouncements that were made during the campaign,” said Donald Cameron Clark, Jr., a lawyer and criminal justice activist. “They are frustrated if not handcuffed by the political realities of Congress.” 

“What they then need to turn to and need to use more robustly than they have to date are the executive options,” Clark said, referring to certain federal traction to reform the death penalty. 

“It’s a matter of capacity and priorities.”