Liberals fight risk of letdown after early Covid wins

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Progressives in Congress won the early rounds in their party’s high-stakes coronavirus relief fight. But they’ll soon face a tougher battle: steering those initial successes through multiple looming Senate minefields.

A determined band of liberals, led by Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), has spent the first month of Joe Biden’s presidency pushing their agenda for their party’s relief bill. That paid off Monday, as House Democrats announced the bill would include the first federal minimum wage hike since 2009. Liberals also scored another major win by fighting off a centrist push to tighten the eligibility for stimulus checks for millions of Americans.

Yet each of those early victories could be short-lived: Senior Democrats caution that procedural obstacles could force them to strip the minimum wage hike from the bill in the weeks ahead. That’s on top of lingering centrist resistance, with at least one Senate Democrat publicly opposed to increasing the minimum wage, not to mention the steep $54 billion price tag for that policy alone.

Progressive leaders say they’re prepared to use the weight of their caucus, as well the megaphone of closely-aligned outside groups, to try to force their party’s hand.

“We’re bracing for wins on these issues. We’re going to push these all the way to the end,” Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said in an interview.

Jayapal acknowledged that potential budget issues would be out of the House’s control, saying her caucus would “do everything we can” to support Sanders as he pushes for a broader bill.

The coronavirus relief wins secured by House liberals are among the first signs of a newly emboldened progressive wing under Jayapal’s leadership. In the fall, she engineered an overhaul of the group that consolidated her power and tightened membership rules in an effort to give the sprawling progressive caucus more sway within the House.

And that new influence could prove invaluable as House leaders begin to look beyond this winter’s pandemic relief talks to an agenda stacked with hot-button bills that could divide Democrats’ narrow majority on everything from immigration to gun control to voting rights. Speaker Nancy Pelosi can only afford to lose a handful of Democrats on any given vote, giving outsized leverage to the caucus’ competing factions.

Jayapal, who was sick with Covid in the early days of Biden’s presidency, says she has lobbied all levels of Democratic leadership to ensure a relief bill that includes the $15-an-hour minimum wage, which has been a priority for the left — including Democratic leaders — for over a decade.

Jayapal said the CPC was “feeling pretty good” until Biden’s statement last Friday casting doubt on whether the wage increase would make it in the final bill — a moment she described as a “gut punch.” She spent the weekend arguing to preserve the wake hike in conversations with House committee leaders and Biden advisers. That included helping to organize a Sunday call with Senate Budget Committee Chair Bernie Sanders, attended by staff for that panel and House leadership aides, to address some of the lingering procedural questions.

“I was doing everything I could to get it in there,” Jayapal said, adding that she’d also planned a back-up option: an amendment to force the wage hike into the bill during a committee markup. She was also in touch with influential outside groups like the Service Employees International Union.

The initial version of the bill — presented to House Education and Labor Committee Democrats on Sunday — did not include the minimum wage provision. But by Sunday night, Jayapal said she’d received a text from both Pelosi and Education and Labor Chair Bobby Scott that it would be included.

Senior Democrats say they’ve been working to include the minimum wage increase for weeks, arguing there’s little point in being conservative when their party holds all levers of power. Even so, they privately acknowledge the Senate ultimately holds the power to determine what stays in the relief bill.

No one can predict whether policies such as the $15 minimum wage will stay intact in the Senate’s final bill. That question is at the mercy of the Senate parliamentarian, who determines which policies pass muster in the budget process known as reconciliation. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer dodged questions Tuesday about whether the provision would survive a parliamentary review.

Then there’s the Senate’s 50-50 divide, which mean a single Democrat — such as Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia — can strike an item off the liberal wishlist.

“Who was it that worked the grocery stores, the drug stores, the meat packers, the caregivers? It was people that we didn’t think were worth paying $15 an hour, and they’re the glue holding us together,” said Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), a member of both the progressive caucus and Democratic leadership who’s also vowing to keep the policy alive.

The past two years in the majority have prepared House progressives well for their current fight, requiring them to work with top Democrats to muscle through big-ticket bills, including an earlier minimum wage hike that led to intraparty squabbling between the party’s more liberal and centrist members.

But liberals’ initial success in their party’s Covid negotiations are a shift from the last Congress, when Jayapal and her members were sometimes forced to yield to their moderate — and more politically vulnerable — colleagues on big policy priorities such as immigration, causing open warfare within the caucus.

It’s unclear how long the bonhomie between the party’s two wings lasts.

In the last Congress, the messaging bills that did make it to the House floor had no chance of becoming law given the GOP-controlled White House and Senate. The calculations for Democratic leaders in both chambers are much different now that they’re in full control of Washington and racing to pass a nearly $2 trillion bill that can attract virtually unified support from their party without hitting any of the Senate’s budget tripwires.

The stakes, too, couldn’t be higher, with billions of dollars on the line for vaccine distribution, schools, small businesses and health workers as Biden attempts to deliver his first major legislative priority. And Democrats worry that any political misstep could cost them in the 2022 midterms.

Jayapal said progressives have an arsenal of tools to help keep the pressure on Biden and Democratic leaders over the next two years, including their extensive activist base.

When top Democrats mulled whether to tighten the eligibility for people to receive stimulus checks, Jayapal said she and her members decided to be vocal and lean into the broad public support for their position. The Washington Democrat led a letter with Biden ally Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Del.) urging the party not to lower that upper income limit that got more than 100 signatures.

Still, long-time liberals in the House say they have to be prepared to make some concessions as Democrats assemble the most sprawling bill possible under restrictive conditions.

“You can’t be in advocacy politics without experiencing heartbreak. You advocate for the best possible and ultimately you have to make a decision on what is substantial progress,” said veteran Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.).

“Not all of us,” Welch added, “are going to get what we want.”

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