Progressive or moderate, Senate Democrats must move Biden’s agenda forward

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) speaks to reporters as leaves the Capitol following votes on Thursday, October 28, 2021.
Greg Nash

OK, let’s declare victory in the House of Representatives and move on to the Senate. If you are a good Democrat, the past several months have been painful for you as lawmakers argued over President Biden’s agenda. Many of us who believe that the Democratic Party stands for the values needed to achieve a more equitable country have been suffering as Republicans effectively have used the culture war and our inability to get things done to beat us over the head. Until House Democrats on Friday passed the more than $1.75 trillion Build Back Better Act, it was hard to stand by and watch our party almost self-immolate. 

We control the White House, the House and the Senate and yet, we have seemed hopelessly deadlocked in a war between our party’s progressive and moderate wings

In my view, it is a zero-sum game to classify Democrats as “progressive” or “moderate” because most Democrats I know embrace many of the principles that are categorized as being in one camp or the another. For example, I consider myself a progressive — I am strongly pro-choice and support a significant increase in the minimum wage. I’m for fully funding robust education programs from pre-kindergarten to college. I support our taking the difficult steps to achieve an environment free from the harmful effects of fossil fuels. I’m all for getting rid of the tax loopholes that allow the wealthiest Americans and most successful corporations to pay little or no federal taxes.

But I am also a moderate. I believe in the limited use of the death penalty and significant prison sentences for people who commit violence. I am for a strong military that spends money only on the things we really need to accomplish our mission. I’m committed to fiscal stability. We should find a way to pay for every program that we pass into law. And I believe it is vitally important to reduce our national debt and to resort to deficit spending only when we face serious emergencies.  

So, how best would I be described — as a “progressive moderate,” or a “moderate progressive”? 

Right now in Congress, many progressives believe that even the original Build Back Better bill that Biden put forth was not ambitious enough. They saw the $3.5 trillion price tag as paltry and hoped for something closer to $6 trillion. Moderates, on the other hand, somewhat echo the Republican chant that too much money is being spent on things that have great goals but dubious effectiveness, and that this level of spending will spur our burgeoning inflation.

Republicans say we can’t afford to enact this legislation because it will add to the national debt.  I was initially amazed the GOP made this argument because I recall just a few short years ago they voted unanimously for Donald Trump’s budget that added the same amount of money to the national debt and was totally unpaid for. But then I remembered that this is the same party that blocked Merrick Garland’s nomination for the Supreme Court in 2016 because it was too close to the election — and then railroaded the appointment of Justice Amy Coney Barrett and confirmed her just nine days before the 2020 election.

But I digress. We Democrats have little — or at best, infinitesimal — ability to affect Republican decision-making. Fortunately, we don’t need one Republican vote if we can hold 100 percent of our votes in the Senate. This state of play gives the moderates — who appear to be just Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) — the sort of leverage that translates into a personal veto.

Intra-party squabbling has been the focus of endless news reports in Washington. We risk looking like a party that can’t get anything done — even things that were the major pledges by our candidates when running for office in 2020. Our party appears to voters to stand for different values, to be inept and unable to pass legislation that may well be key to our victory in 2022.

Fortunately, we have almost a full year to do things that are consistent with Democrats’ campaign goals before we must stand for another election. There is a solution to this problem, found in the time-honored political axiom: “You should know when to declare victory.” Our progressive wing should realize that the compromise that appears to have the best chance of becoming law — with nearly $2 trillion in spending for programs that for decades will have the capability to make a more equitable America — is a historic accomplishment. This bill alone will not solve all our problems, but it’s an important first step in what might be described as a gigantic start to achieving our goals.

So, Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and members of the House “squad” — you’ve really won. Putting at least $1.75 trillion toward solving age-old problems that have been ignored in the past is not a meager achievement. It’s something for which you can be immensely proud; you were the driving forces to make it happen.

And you moderates — you agree with the goals and almost all the programs in Build Back Better, but you are afraid that it will cause inflation. Well, guess what: You’ve won, too, because your resoluteness caused the overall spending to be reduced by more than $1.7 trillion. There has never been a reduction in spending at this level by Congress where the majority and the president are in the same party. So, chalk up a big victory for moderates on the political scoreboard. 

Here’s my memo to both sides: Let’s get this done — soon. Declare victory by finalizing the Build Back Better bill and have one heck of a party together because you’ve just completed the easiest part of this important task. 

The hardest work lies ahead — that is, implementing these transformational programs with the proper oversight to ensure that every dollar is spent wisely. And if we do this correctly, we just might find that we all basically agree on the things that will help us achieve our goals. And while we are at it, we will change our country and help make the American Dream available to every American.

Edward G. Rendell was the 45th governor of Pennsylvania. He is a former mayor of Philadelphia and former district attorney in that city. He served as chairman of the Democratic National Committee during the 2000 presidential election. Follow him on Twitter @GovEdRendell.

Tags Amy Coney Barrett Bernie Sanders Build Back Better bill congressional moderates Democratic Party Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Joe Biden Joe Manchin Kyrsten Sinema Merrick Garland progressives

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