Centrists and liberals fighting to the end over executive actions
When House progressives met privately with President Biden about using his executive powers to enact policies they say will improve Americans’ lives, they viewed it as a step toward achieving their top line items.
Less than 24 hours later, some moderate Democrats and, predictably, Republicans were already warning about the perils of the pen swipe strategy.
“The No. 1 thing we need to do is to get bills to the president’s desk,” Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.), who chairs the moderate New Democrat Coalition in the House, told The Hill in an interview. “That’s the only way we get a long-term, durable policy in place.”
The closed–door discussion, which took place Wednesday night between Biden and members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, was meant as an opportunity for liberal lawmakers to implore the president to offer solutions for daily burdens facing millions of people, including high college debt and the astronomical cost of prescription drugs.
Congressional Democrats have failed to pass an ambitious agenda that had many of the items on progressives’ wish list, such as paid family leave, cuts to child care costs, an expansion of pre-K and extensive climate measures.
Many on the left insist that help from the White House is overdue. But while some felt momentum exiting the meeting, it also sparked questions from others in the party — and garnered attacks from the opposition — about carrying out a strategy that’s temporary by design.
“Do fewer things better, for longer,” DelBene said, “instead of trying to do everything.”
“You end up with a bunch of things that may only be in place for a year,” she added.
Another prominent moderate Democratic lawmaker suggested that such actions can be a distraction from the legislative process.
“Many of us are much more interested in actually finding bipartisan solutions that can get through Congress,” the House moderate said. “Executive action just changes from one administration to the next.”
As centrists’ concerns grew throughout the week, progressives grumbled at the notion that the president should lean even more heavily on an increasingly stagnant Congress rather than acting within his own authority as the nation’s chief executive.
“We shouldn’t be surprised,” said John Paul Mejia, a climate activist and spokesman for the Sunrise Movement. “For the past two years, corporate Democrats have shown us that obstructing the popular policies that Biden was elected on is what they know how to do best.”
Earlier this month, progressive lawmakers released a roster of items they’d like to see Biden enact as soon as possible. A source familiar with the committee’s preparations said leadership planned to present each of those priorities to the president in their discussion, effectively leaving nothing on the floor. Members had been drafting the proposed orders for the past several weeks.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the chairwoman of the 98-member caucus, said that, in addition to lowering drug costs and forgiving student loans, officials urged the administration to act on “raising the overtime threshold” and “expanding renewable energy to decrease reliance on fossil fuels” — a key focus as inflation and gas prices continue to soar amid Russia’s war in Ukraine — as well as “fixing the Affordable Care Act ‘family glitch’ to expand access to health care.”
The same day Biden met with House liberals, the moderate New Democrat Coalition also convened a session with the president and members of his senior White House team, which served as a counterweight.
DelBene and other centrist lawmakers stressed to the president that while the gridlock in Congress is frustrating, it’s still possible to get top priorities passed in the near term. They said that “any executive actions should be developed in consultation with Congress and have broad support among the American people and Congressional Democrats” — signaling to the administration that some in the party have reservations about certain progressive goals.
Tactically, executive actions have become a quick alternative to a stalled Congress for White House occupants of both parties. Former Presidents Obama and Trump both used them to advance their political agendas on immigration and security.
But their short-lived status makes the orders less palatable, and some lawmakers, including DelBene, believe by circumventing the legislative branch, Americans are likely to lose trust in the institution of Congress and practice of governing.
“To show governance is working, to provide certainty and to have an impact over the long term, we need to pass legislation,” DelBene said. “The better answer is always going to be that Congress acts.”
Republicans criticized Obama for what they said was a politically calculated way to advance far-left principles. Fast-forward and Trump’s decision to bar immigrants from majority-Muslim countries from entering the United States was widely condemned by Democrats.
With midterms just seven months away, Republicans are likely eager to campaign on reversing any measures Biden takes that do not include lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
The first sign of that came on Friday, when the White House announced a reversal of the Trump-era Title 42 order, a public health policy that made it easier to push migrants and other refugees back across the southern border during the coronavirus pandemic.
“At every opportunity, Biden has enacted policies that open our southern border, empower drug smugglers and human traffickers, and make American communities less safe,” Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said in a statement.
“Joe Biden has overseen the worst border crisis in DHS [Department of Homeland Security] history. By removing Title 42, Biden’s doubling down on his commitment to actively worsening the crisis he created,” she added.
The National Republican Congressional Committee, which is working to unseat vulnerable House Democrats in hopes of reclaiming the lower chamber, was equally infuriated by the president’s move.
“Every Democrat will have to answer for the Biden administration’s decision to turn their border crisis into a border catastrophe,” said Torunn Sinclair, a committee spokesperson.
Even some within Biden’s own party publicly expressed their displeasure.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who frequently draws ire from liberals, cautioned that the migration policy should remain on the books until coronavirus cases ease up, going as far as to call it a “frightening decision.”
“We are already facing an unprecedented increase in migrants this year, and that will only get worse if the administration ends the Title 42 policy,” the West Virginia Democrat wrote. “We are nowhere near prepared to deal with that influx. Until we have comprehensive, bipartisan immigration reform that commits to securing our borders and providing a pathway to citizenship for qualified immigrants, Title 42 must stay in place.”
Jayapal had a different take.
She said she “could not be more pleased” with the decision and was ready to “welcome people into our country with open arms and hearts.”
The flurry of action following the president’s pair of meetings came as Biden suffers from his lowest approval ratings to date. Several national and state surveys place the president at or below 40 percent, a figure that Democrats acknowledge must improve for the party to have a reasonable shot at midterm success.
Democratic lawmakers and activists once hopeful that “Build Back Better” would pass on a party-line vote saw that excitement diminish month after month as congressional logjam killed their plans. Progressives, for their part, have since sought to remind voters that it was largely Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) who held up the package in the Senate, while some moderates in the House also voiced objections before it passed in the lower chamber.
With that in mind, executive actions are still a viable way to get around that, some progressives insist.
Biden, Mejia said, can either “cave to a handful of corporate elites in the party or use executive actions to deliver the mandate that the people elected him on.”