Biden risks first major fight with progressives

President Biden is on a potential collision course with progressives like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) over the size and scope of his newly unveiled infrastructure package.

While many progressives applauded Biden’s $2.25 trillion proposal on Wednesday, they also cautioned it is only the starting point for negotiations. 

Some of the more ambitious proposals favored by progressives, such as expanding Medicare, investing in free community college and universal prekindergarten, have been relegated to a second infrastructure package slated for introduction later this year.

That’s making progressive lawmakers and outside advocacy groups nervous. They worry some of their top priorities, such as more funding for child care and a permanent child tax credit, may lose momentum if the first package, which focuses on more traditional infrastructure priorities, becomes law.

They also question whether it’s realistic for the White House to expect any Republicans to vote for a narrower infrastructure package — which seems to be the main reason for dividing Biden’s infrastructure agenda into two bills.

One key moderate, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), took a shot at Biden’s plan Wednesday, calling the proposal to raise corporate tax rates “the wrong approach,” an early sign that attracting Republican votes will be difficult.

“This might be the last opportunity we have to really do big things under reconciliation. We need to see more here, and I think that’s the universal thought across the movement right now,” said Yvette Simpson, the CEO of Democracy for America, a progressive advocacy group, referring to special budget rules that allow Democrats to pass bills through the Senate with simple-majority votes.

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is making the argument to the Senate parliamentarian that Democrats should be allowed to move two more packages under those special budgetary rules.

Democrats are unlikely to pick up more than one or two Republicans on an infrastructure bill in the 50-50 Senate, if they get any GOP votes at all.

“The big question is, ‘Is this the last time we’re going to the well?’ We were told initially there were going to be two big reconciliation budgets. The first one was going to be around COVID and the second one was going to be everything else,” said Simpson.

If Democrats aren’t able to move a third reconciliation package to enact reforms left out of Wednesday’s infrastructure package, Simpson said, Biden’s $2.25 trillion proposal isn’t “going to go far enough.” 

By putting the most politically popular infrastructure items in the first package, progressives worry it’ll be even harder to get support from moderates such as Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) when the more people-focused infrastructure package lands in Congress.

“You may as well put everything in the bill, get your caucus together on one big bill, because outside of Republicans we still have to worry about the Manchins and the Sinemas of the world who want their potholes [fixed] and they want it now, but they may not care as much about health care,” Simpson said.

Warren last week raised concerns that focusing exclusively on popular priorities, such as fixing highways, rebuilding bridges and upgrading ports, could make it more difficult to pass legislation later on that addresses economic inequality. 

“I want to see the details of how they’re planning to make sure that the climate issues and the child care issues don’t get left behind. We can’t have the train leave the station and critical parts are left on the platform,” she said.

On Wednesday, she tweeted that “the #AmericanJobsPlan is a game-changer and full of ideas that progressives like me are fighting for to make long-overdue investments in America’s future.” 

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) on Tuesday said Biden’s plan needs to be “way bigger.” 

“This is not nearly enough. The important context here is that it’s $2.25T spread out over 10 years. For context, the COVID package was $1.9T for this year *alone,* with some provision lasting 2 years,” she tweeted.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said Tuesday the White House needs to go even bigger, lamenting that Biden’s proposal is much smaller than what he championed on the campaign trail last year.

“The Biden infrastructure proposal on the campaign trail was significantly larger than what’s been discussed so far with Build Back Better,” Jayapal said on a call with reporters, citing estimates that put the cost of his campaign proposal between $6.5 trillion and $11 trillion over 10 years.

“So we really think that there’s ample room to get the overall number up to somewhere in that range in order to really tackle the scale of investment that we need to make,” she said.

Jayapal supports including tax hikes in the package but primarily as a way to bring more “fairness” to the tax code, rather than simply to offset the cost of infrastructure improvements. 

“Democrats should not constrain ourselves or lower our ambitions because of manufactured concerns about the deficit,” she said. 

Among progressive activists, there are growing questions about whether Biden’s infrastructure plan will do enough to tackle economic inequality in historically marginalized communities. 

“There’s a lot more that needs to be addressed, especially when we think about how equity has been reflected in climate justice work,” said Joanne Pérodin, an activist with Florida Rising. “This is the time for us to get bolder.”

She said the White House and Congress needs to make sure investment will be equitably spread across “Black communities, brown communities, indigenous communities.”

Given those concerns, progressive lawmakers and activists are rallying around another infrastructure proposal, the Thrive Act, unveiled on Monday. The measure would invest $1 trillion in the U.S. economy each year over the next decade with a goal of cutting climate pollution in half by 2030. 

Its sponsors include Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Reps. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) and Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.).

Markey on Tuesday called the moment a “historic opportunity” to enact a bold plan.

“With a Democratic White House and Senate and House of Representatives we have a chance to lift the gaze of our country to the constellation of possibilities in job creation and to finally rectify the historic racial injustices so many people of color have faced in this country, all while solving the climate crisis at the same time,” he said in a video touting the legislation.

A progressive Senate aide called Biden’s plan “a good start,” noting that raising the corporate tax rate to 28 percent and other business tax changes will raise around $3 trillion over 15 years.

But the source said Senate liberals “are going to push for more on the climate stuff, on child care and more progressive tax” policy. 

Advocates of a bolder approach argue the federal government will need to spend more money to achieve full employment.

“It’s a good step in the right direction in terms of the scope, the fact that it’s pretty expansive. However, as it relates to the scale, we’re going to need larger-scale investments in order to reach full employment in this country,” said Maurice Mitchell, national director of the Working Families Party.

He estimated that the Thrive Act would create 15 million jobs over 10 years.

“We’re going to work with President Biden and the Senate and the House” to expand the size and scope of Biden’s infrastructure package, he said, calling Biden’s $2.25 proposal “a floor.” 

Some activists are already turning their attention to Democratic moderates like Manchin.

“Over the next week, during the congressional recess, there are more than 130 actions taking place all over the country where activists and others are going to be engaging their congressional leaders,” Mitchell said.

“The actions range from congressional town halls, but there’s all types of other actions that activists are doing on the ground. In West Virginia, in front of Joe Manchin’s three offices, there are going to be concerts.”

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Bernie Sanders Build Back Better Charles Schumer Debbie Dingell Ed Markey Elizabeth Warren Inequality Infrastructure Joe Biden Joe Manchin Kyrsten Sinema liberals Pramila Jayapal progressives Ro Khanna Rob Portman taxes Yvette Clarke
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