The Congressional Progressive Caucus got the White House message – no more delay. Members embraced a compromise economic package as the best available deal, and accepted private assurances of Senate support.
Then Joe Manchin, one of the recalcitrant senators they were counting on, went before television cameras to warn he might sink the negotiated plan. His sniping was shimmering bait for a political fight, but the Progressive Caucus didn’t bite.
“The best thing we could do was ignore it,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the caucus chairwoman, explained in an interview. “We need to keep our eyes on the prize.”
The prize – President Joe Biden’s two-part agenda of $1.2 trillion for infrastructure and nearly $2 trillion for fighting climate change and helping struggling families – appeared even more elusive by week’s end. As the House prepared to pass both, a handful of House moderates, mimicking Manchin’s resistance, threatened the intra-party balancing act Biden and Speaker Nancy Pelosi had built their legislative strategy around.
After hours of tense wrangling, the 96-member progressive group again chose pragmatism in pursuit of legislative achievement.
All but six backed the infrastructure bill, allowing it to pass and go the White House for Biden’s signature. For the more controversial larger bill on which the compromise had been struck, progressives settled for assurances from wavering colleagues of passage later this month.
Their choices under pressure show the unusual role the progressives are now playing as a self-identified ideological subset of the Democratic caucus. Instead of challenging their party’s priorities, progressives are advancing them; instead of battling their party’s leaders, progressives are helping them cope with intra-party dissidents.
That’s not the role ideological factions within Congress typically play.
In the 1960s, the liberal Democratic Study Group helped overthrow the hegemony of conservative Southern Democrats on civil rights. In the 1980s, Newt Gingrich’s Conservative Opportunity Society rebelled against moderate GOP leaders on tax cuts and the role of government; Gingrich proudly sank a bipartisan budget deal forged by Republican President George H.W. Bush, contributing to Bush’s subsequent defeat for reelection.
In recent years, the truculent populists who rode the tea party wave ultimately pushed out two Republican House speakers. Along the way, they triggered a debt limit crisis that caused the first-ever downgrade of US government credit.
An instigator of that crisis, GOP Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, became the first chairman of the House Freedom Caucus. Ex-Speaker John Boehner would later denounce him as a “political terrorist” bent on “tearing things apart, never building anything.”
Republicans who chafed alongside their unyielding Freedom Caucus colleagues see the Progressive Caucus as a mirror image. They insist progressives and their allies hijacked the Democratic agenda from veteran leaders Biden and Pelosi.
“I’m surprised by how she is a captive of them,” observed former GOP Rep. Barbara Comstock of Virginia. Former Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania faults liberal historians for pushing Biden toward “your chance to go big.”
Pursuing outsized goals, Dent added, progressives “are similar to the Freedom Caucus in this sense: they’re not afraid to take a hostage.”
Such assessments ignore the extent to which Biden’s agenda reflects today’s Democratic political mainstream. Many of his proposals – now pared down from their initial versions - echo thwarted initiatives of President Barack Obama when Biden served as vice president.
To be sure, progressives seized a legislative hostage by vowing to block the infrastructure bill until the Senate passed the larger climate-and-families bill. But that was precisely the strategy of Biden, Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer.
It became problematic as negotiations over the larger bill dragged on. Impatient for results late last month, Pelosi asked progressives to release their hostage and pass the infrastructure bill before Biden left Washington for international meetings.
The progressives declined, sending the president to Europe empty-handed. But that didn’t shake the view within the White House and Congressional leadership that the progressives remained their allies, and the moderates their obstacle.
Progressives shifted their position after receiving details of the “framework” compromise Biden had negotiated and gaining confidence Congress would pass it. They dropped their Senate demand, without even getting public declarations of support from Manchin and fellow holdout Kyrsten Sinema, a moderate Democrat from Arizona.
Biden told them the Senate would pass it. They decided to take his word.
That’s what made their unflinching response to Manchin so striking.
“It was in many ways astonishing,” said Norman Ornstein, a scholar of Congress at the American Enterprise Institute. “It would have been so easy to say ‘Manchin’s trying to blow this up, we’re not going to let this bait and switch go through.’ “
They resisted that temptation again when the infrastructure bill hit the House floor on Friday night. That left a few House and Senate moderates – often presumed to be Biden’s natural allies – in the Freedom Caucus role of menacing their party’s priorities for at least a few more weeks.
“This is not about bringing our party down, bringing our president down, bringing our leadership down,” Jayapal said in the interview. “It’s about trying to pass the president’s agenda.”
That’s not a permanent alignment. Progressives haven’t given up, for example, on seeking the single-payer “Medicare for All” remake of America’s health system that Biden opposes.
But that fight and lesser ones won’t come until later in Biden’s tenure – or under the next Democrat to win the Oval Office.
“Yes, there are times when we are pushing for more than the president wants,” Jayapal concluded. “But this is not that time.”