“But in America,” the New York Democrat added, with some resignation, “we are.”
More than a year-and-a-half later, the comment — which stirred up indignation at the time among some Democrats who viewed it as divisive — has been largely forgotten amid a continuing pandemic and now the unfolding situation in Afghanistan. But the truth in her words does a lot to explain the challenges now facing Democratic lawmakers, who successfully walked a tightrope to legislative achievement with their initial Covid-19 “rescue” plan and are currently attempting another crossing as they negotiate the passage of a bipartisan infrastructure package alongside an even larger social spending bill.
That the fates of the two bills, one championed by moderate Democrats and the other by progressives, are tied together is in itself a neat metaphor for the broader dynamic influencing the party’s path in the Biden era, as it seeks to show it can deliver for the American people ahead of next year’s midterms. Neither package has enough support to pass in the House of Representatives without disparate factions of Democrats agreeing to vote for legislation they would not, under other circumstances, be inclined to back. Democrats are, in sum, doing the work of a coalition government — the kind of fraught, patchwork majority more typically found in the parliamentary democracies of Western Europe.
To advance any and all pieces of their shared agenda, Democrats need unanimity in their Senate ranks and can only afford to lose a handful of votes in the House. Those thin margins, and the fragility of leadership’s best laid plans, came into stark focus these past few weeks during an eleventh hour revolt against what Washington insiders call the “two-track strategy,” which aims to put both bills on Biden’s desk at about the same time — a legislative tactic of mutual assured destruction, with both sides empowered to scuttle the other’s top priority.
Rivals on the trail, allies on the Hill
The political battlefield is complex, with overlapping incentives that mean primary season rivals can be allies on legislative matters.
That dynamic was on display during the recent standoff over the timing of a House vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which has already passed in the Senate. A breakaway group of centrist House Democratic lawmakers demanded it come immediately to the floor, a move that could have potentially stranded the legislation sought by the left. Eventually, the group struck a deal with leadership allowing the both tracks of the process to move forward. But those few white knuckle days, full of tense private meetings, calls from the White House and the launch of pressure campaigns from outside groups underscored the tenuous nature of not only the legislation at hand, but the party’s status quo.
After the agreement was in place, New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, the House Democratic Caucus Chairman, summed up the fundamental political incentives that carried the day.
“The most important thing is, as Democrats, we remain united behind the objectives that have been set by President Biden,” Jeffries said. “Democracy is messy, and Democrats are not a cult, we’re a coalition.”
The parameters of that coalition have evolved in recent years with the growth of the party’s progressive wing, both on Capitol Hill and among a Democratic electorate increasingly supportive of more ambitious policies.
“The power struggle between establishment or corporate Democrats versus progressive shows how far we’ve come in a short amount of time. How far the progressive movement has come,” said Joseph Geevarghese, executive director of Our Revolution, a progressive group founded in the aftermath of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign. “We’ve gone from the outside, being locked out, being forced to take to the streets, to actually having a seat at the table and real power and leverage where leadership has to take us seriously.”
The oddsmakers’ favorite to succeed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in leading the Democratic caucus if she retires in the coming years, Jeffries, a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, has often flown the moderate flag on the front lines of the intra-party electoral fights. Some have played out in parallel to Democrats’ work in Washington. The special election to replace former Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge, who gave up her seat in the 11th Congressional District to become Biden’s Housing and Urban Development secretary, launched a proxy fight that pitted former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner, a staunch Sanders ally and surrogate, against the establishment backed-Shontel Brown, a councilmember and local party chair. Brown ended up defeating Turner by a comfortable margin, a result Jeffries and other moderates crowed over in the aftermath.
Jeffries’ pushback against the progressive primary apparatus, conducted simultaneously with his work to make and maintain a unified front in Washington, underscores the party’s sometimes awkward internal political realities.
In June, Jeffries — along with New Jersey Rep. Josh Gottheimer and Alabama Rep. Terri Sewell — announced the formation of an organization designed to defend incumbent Democrats who might face primary challengers. In effect, the group was designed to match wits and dollars with Justice Democrats, the group that backed Ocasio-Cortez and other progressive outsiders, like Missouri Rep. Cori Bush and New York Rep. Jamaal Bowman, both of whom defeated moderate longtime incumbents in 2020.
But even as the left lines up its challengers and moderates prepare to launch a well-funded counteroffensive, they were ultimately pushing for the same legislative outcome on Capitol Hill, even if they used different methods and messages — including outside attacks against each other — to get there.
During the standoff over the timing of the infrastructure vote, Organize for Justice, a sister organization of Justice Democrats, joined other progressive groups to buy television and digital ads attacking the members of the rebel lawmakers in their home districts. Gottheimer was among those targeted.
“Constituents deserve to know the truth about how these nine conservative Democrats are blocking urgent action on jobs, climate, and child care,” Alexandra Rojas, of Organize for Justice and Justice Democrats, said in a statement last Monday morning. “Americans have been waiting for over a decade for action on many of these issues, it’s time to deliver results.”
Despite Gottheimer’s lead role in the drama over the timing of the infrastructure vote, which threatened to undermine House leadership — of which Jeffries is a member — the mission of the new PAC, called Team Blue, remains unchanged.
“Team Blue PAC looks forward to supporting members of the House Democratic Caucus family,” a source familiar with Jeffries’ thinking told CNN, “with an emphasis on defending effective, progressive legislators like Carolyn Maloney, John Yarmuth and Danny Davis who are advancing the Build Back Better agenda.” (Maloney, from New York’s 12th Congressional District, and Davis, from Illinois’ 7th, are both facing primary challenges from Justice Democrats-backed candidates. Yarmuth, the longtime congressman from Kentucky’s 3rd district, is facing a primary fight with a progressive state lawmaker.)
Biden’s White House: keepers of the peace
The larger, partisan bill that will need to be passed through the budget reconciliation process, would — according to its early framework — create a universal pre-K program for 3- and 4-year-olds, offer new child care benefits to working families and, for the first time, eventually provide a federal guarantee of paid parental, family and personal illness leave. In addition to measures designed to curb climate change and invest in affordable housing, it would also increase subsidies for Obamacare and, after so many years of debate and advocacy, lower prescription drug prices and expand Medicare — lowering the eligibility age while beefing up the popular program to include dental, vision and hearing benefits.
Taken together, the legislation would represent the largest and most consequential expansion of aid and protections to the social safety net in a generation. For many on the left, it also amounts to a marker of the movement’s growing influence.
Though progressives still lag other factions of the party in terms of representation in Congress, Biden and his team have, since he became the Democrats’ presumptive presidential nominee in 2020, worked relentlessly to build a working relationship with the left and its energetic base.
Sanders, his closest competitor and the final rival to fall on Biden’s late surge to the nomination, has returned the favor. Ascending to the chair of the Senate Budget Committee after the Democrats, with whom he caucuses, won their Senate majority, Sanders has worked closely with the White House, even as some of his top campaign priorities, like “Medicare for all,” have been sidelined.
The White House, in turn, has provided a backstop for progressives during the push to get both of the party’s legislative priorities over the line. When the group of nine Democrats demanding an immediate House vote on the bipartisan Senate infrastructure bill said Biden shared their desire, the White House knocked them back.
“(Biden) has been clear that he wants both bills on his desk and that he looks forward to signing each,” White House spokesman Andrew Bates told NBC News on Monday, adding that the President supported Pelosi’s broader approach to steering the White House agenda.
The insistence from Pelosi that the process move forward on two tracks along with the public lines from the White House, when silence might have upended the dynamic in the House, reinforced growing confidence among Hill progressives that Biden could be trusted. Both the President and his director of legislative affairs, Louisa Terrell, were among those working the phones to help end the stand-off.
“All those pieces made me feel that we’ve got the ammo that we need going into the next stage of negotiations,” a senior aide involved in progressive Democrats’ strategy told CNN, suggesting they view moderate Senate Democrats as the next big hurdle. “And for whatever (West Virginia Sen. Joe) Manchin and (Arizona Sen. Kyrsten) Sinema’s antics, they’re not talking about allowing the reconciliation bill to be stranded.”
Democrats — whose majority is only as useful as their near unanimity — appear to be on a path to fulfilling Biden’s ambitious framework. The party has shown, to date, that it can be both in “disarray” and a functioning operation — and that the imperative to act, in coalition, appears to be winning the day.
This story has been updated with Jeffries’ membership in the Congressional Progressive Caucus.