Progressives scramble to save top priorities from chopping block

Progressives are scrambling to save top priorities that risk being scaled down or axed from President Biden’s social spending plan as Democratic leadership and the White House race to get a deal.  

Democratic leadership is hoping liberals will embrace the bill, even though it’s substantially smaller than the $6 trillion originally envisioned by the left or even the $3.5 trillion approved under a budget resolution earlier this year. 

Liberal lawmakers are warning that Democrats need to make good on promises they made to voters, who delivered the party its first trifecta in roughly a decade during the 2020 election.  

“What we’re seeing now is a real clash. A, on one hand people want real change … on the other hand, you’re seeing the powerful special interests saying sorry we want the status quo,” said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) acknowledged that several priorities were in flux because “this is what happens in the negotiation.”  

“You know there’s a lot of pieces and as you know we have no margin for error. We need all 50 Democrats. … We made promises in the last election, and we need to deliver on those promises,” Warren said. 

Though Democrats feel like they are on the cusp of clinching a deal on a framework for the spending bill, including a top-line number, many of progressives’ biggest priorities are still in flux.  

Congressional Progressive Caucus Chairwoman Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) warned this week that there couldn’t be a deal without progressive sign-off.  

“We’re pushing as hard as we can to get as much as we can,” she said. “Nobody should take progressive votes for granted. There is no deal until everything is agreed to by everybody.”  

Democrats are engaged in intense behind-the-scenes negotiations as they try to figure out a way to keep top progressive priorities in the bill, even if it’s smaller than they originally envisioned. 

Democrats, after closed-door caucus meetings on Tuesday, said that they were still ironing out paid family leave, climate change provisions and a tax targeting billionaires. Democrats are still trying to win over support from moderates for expansions of Medicaid and Medicare, with the party viewing the bill as its best shot in years to enact sweeping health care legislation.  

Sanders is drawing a red line around including expanding Medicare to cover hearing, vision and dental and giving Medicare the ability to negotiate lower drug prices.  

“Bottom line is that any reconciliation bill must include serious negotiations on the part of Medicare with the pharmaceutical industry, lower the cost of prescription drugs. That’s what the American people want,” Sanders said.  

He added that a “serious reconciliation bill must include expanding Medicare to cover dental, hearing aids and eyeglasses.” 

Progressive senators also say they are still in talks with Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) to try to get a Medicare drug negotiation plan. The House included a broad plan in its draft of the bill, but it has sparked pushback from moderates in both chambers.  

Progressives have already seen some key priorities sidelined, including higher corporate tax rates and the Clean Electricity Performance Program, which incentivizes companies toward clean energy sources. Paid family and medical leave could also be on the chopping block, after Biden already pared it down last week from the original 12 proposed weeks to just four weeks. 

Jayapal acknowledged on Tuesday that paid leave “does not look like it’s in a good place.” 

But Democrats are also increasingly feeling bullish that they will be able to get a deal on the climate provisions, including having a fee for methane emissions.  

“There’s going to be a very strong, robust climate package. And our goal is to meet the president’s goal and there are different ways to get there,” said Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).  

Democratic leaders are already preparing their rank and file to accept a compromise as the best they can get with their threadbare majorities in the House and Senate. 

“We are on the verge of something major, transformative, historic and bigger than anything else,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told Democrats during a closed-door caucus meeting in the Capitol on Tuesday morning, according to a source in the room.  

“Embrace it for what it is,” Pelosi said. “No bill is everything. We cannot miss this opportunity.” 

But Pelosi also vowed that she wouldn’t bring the bipartisan infrastructure bill to the House floor until Democrats had assurances that the Senate would accept the final agreement on the social spending package without any further changes. 

Yet Pelosi and Jayapal appeared to offer different standards for what would be enough for House Democrats to vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill. Democratic leaders are aiming for a vote this week on the bipartisan bill, which would renew transportation programs that are set to expire on Sunday.

Jayapal reiterated on Tuesday that “dozens” of Progressive Caucus members would still vote against the bipartisan infrastructure bill if there was only a “framework” on the social spending package and not actual legislative text ready for House floor consideration.

House Democrats can only afford up to three defections and clear the bipartisan infrastructure bill on their own, although there may be some more wiggle room depending on how many Republicans vote for it.  

“At this point, there are dozens of our members who are in that place,” Jayapal told reporters after meeting with Pelosi. 

But moments later, Pelosi pushed back against Jayapal and said a framework is sufficient.  

“Well, I think it is,” Pelosi said. 

There’s also a risk that any push to go bigger will cost leadership votes among moderates, who are already frustrated because the bipartisan infrastructure package — which they view as their top priority — has been stuck in limbo for months.  

While Democrats haven’t landed on a top-line figure, even a bill between $1.7 trillion and $2 trillion would allow the party to make investments in a large sweep of priorities including child care, education, health care, climate change and tax reform. 

“I always knew it was going to be a compromise, a big compromise,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said. “I think the goals that progressives have can be met with this bill, even if the bill doesn’t end up being the size that progressives would like.”  

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), who serves as vote-counter for the Progressive Caucus, indicated openness to a compromise measure, but warned it’s not a guarantee.  

“I think there will still be a lot of good things to vote yes for. But we will see,” Omar told The Hill. “That might change.” 


Scott Wong and Peter Sullivan contributed.

Tags Bernie Sanders Chris Murphy Chuck Schumer Elizabeth Warren Ilhan Omar Joe Biden Kyrsten Sinema Nancy Pelosi Pramila Jayapal

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