Sitting on an empty stage at the White House Wednesday evening, President Joe Biden stared into a camera and made an appeal to House Democrats who, after passing his massive Covid-19 relief package, are worried it is now being watered down.
“I know you’re all making some small compromises and I want to thank you, thank you for the work you’ve done,” he told a virtual gathering of the caucus. “People are going to remember how we showed up.”
For some listening on the other end, the compromises do not feel so small.
Despite a constant open phone line between the White House and progressive members of Congress, liberal dissatisfaction persists with how the Covid-19 bill has advanced. The influence of moderate Democrats in the Senate to make or break the package has left some questioning whether their priorities are being overlooked.
A ruling against including an increase in the minimum wage — which Biden did not contest — dampened enthusiasm among liberal Democrats for the President’s debut legislative effort. Biden’s sign-off on a request from moderate Democrats to narrow eligibility for stimulus checks only caused more angst. He voiced no concerns with the change in the Oval Office on Thursday, telling reporters he was comfortable with it.
“That is one that people came out to the streets for,” said Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna of California of the wage hike. “That’s the one that they voted on. And I think that it would be a colossal political blunder to go into the midterms not having delivered a significant minimum wage increase.”
Khanna said he and fellow progressives have had direct conversations with White House officials about the wage issue, which Biden’s aides insist he remains supportive of passing outside of the Covid-19 relief package.
“They take our calls, but what does that mean?” Khanna said. “There just does not seem to be a strategy to raise the minimum wage at all.”
White House officials say they are still sorting out how to move ahead on the minimum wage after it was stripped from the Covid-19 relief plan for procedural reasons. That could include talks with Republicans on a phased approach, officials said, which is unlikely to satisfy progressives eager for Biden to fulfill his pledge of increasing the wage to $15 per hour.
And they have pointed to outsized efforts by Biden’s campaign and later his administration to include progressive voices in the decision-making process and provide them direct access to the White House. Chief of staff Ron Klain has emerged as a principal liaison between progressive members of Congress and the West Wing, speaking by phone regularly with Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren along with other liberal members. A number of positions in the White House and broader administration have gone to veterans of Sanders’ campaign or other liberal organizations.
Asked Thursday whether moderate Democrats were being asked to compromise on the bill, even as progressives see their items stripped, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden had been “unmovable” on the size of the package and its inclusion of $1,400 checks and state and local funding.
“He has been insistent that the scope of the challenge requires this size of a package and in order to address these twin crises that we are facing it needs to have these key components included,” she said.
In an apparent attempt to shore up support for the measure within their party, Senate Democrats said Thursday they’d secured a number of provisions for the bill, including money for homeless services, infrastructure, rural health care providers, education, the arts and Amtrak, among other items. It also makes all Covid-19 student debt relief tax free.
Yet after drawing plaudits for his outreach to progressives during the campaign, some members of the movement are now upset that key demands are being stripped from the bill.
Focused for now on economic relief, the divergent wishes of progressive and moderate Democrats could become even more plain as legislation looms on infrastructure spending, gun control, immigration, equality issues and voting rights.
The different dynamics at play in the House where Democrats hold a slightly firmer majority and the Senate, where Biden cannot afford to lose a single Democratic vote, have complicated matters. And Biden’s own view of his executive authorities — including, for example, limited scope on student loan forgiveness — have sometimes put him at odds with his party’s liberal wing.
For now, the President’s goal is to unify Democrats behind the Covid-19 relief plan to ensure its passage before unemployment benefits expire March 14. He’s held phone calls and virtual meetings with Democrats every day this week, including with a group of moderates on Monday and the entire caucus during their lunch on Tuesday. He spoke Wednesday with House Democrats, some of whom have become sharply critical of changes made to the Covid-19 relief bill they passed last month.
“A diverse caucus isn’t a divided caucus,” he told them, insisting that once the bill is passed Democrats must promote it heavily.
Still, Biden’s efforts haven’t prevented members of his party from speaking out. On Wednesday, a decision reached by moderate Democrats and signed-off on by Biden to phase out stimulus checks for Americans at higher income levels drew skepticism from progressive Democrats.
“Conservative Dems have fought so the Biden admin sends fewer & less generous relief checks than the Trump admin did,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York tweeted. “It’s a move that makes little-to-no political or economic sense, and targets an element of relief that is most tangibly felt by everyday people. An own-goal.”
More than anything else, though, the minimum wage fight has highlighted progressives’ limited patience. The White House has said Biden wanted the wage increase included in Covid-19 relief but he recognized it was unlikely to pass parliamentary muster because the bill is moving through a process called reconciliation that has strict requirements for what can be included.
White House aides have been less clear on how Biden hopes to see the minimum wage increased going forward.
“He is going to be in conversations, and we will be at a number of levels with members of Congress, with their staffs, about the best vehicle moving forward,” Psaki said this week. “But we don’t have a clear answer on what that looks like at this point. It remains a commitment and something he will use his political capital to get done.”
Left unsaid was the fact that stripping the minimum wage increase from the Covid-19 relief package actually increased the bill’s likelihood of passage in the Senate, since two moderate Democrats, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, both said they opposed it.
That lack of a strategy and an unwillingness to engage has progressives worried this could be a sign of what is to come.
“This is going to be a harbinger for a whole bunch of other promises that Democrats have made. People are only going to give us a couple of shots to see if we’re really going to deliver after they delivered us, the House, the Senate and the White House,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington, who chairs the House Progressive Caucus.
Jayapal, along with other likeminded Democrats, have argued the use of reconciliation — which limits what can be included in a bill — to get around filibusters requiring 60 votes to break could be circumvented by eliminating filibusters altogether, another debate pitting moderate Democrats with more liberal members of the party.
The filibuster issue also continues to be a pressure point between the White House and liberal members of Congress, who want Biden to encourage Vice President Kamala Harris, in her Senate tie-breaking role, both to overrule the parliamentarian and strike down the filibuster.
Whether either of those issues made it to a 50-50 vote that Harris would break remains doubtful; moderate Democrats such as Manchin have said quite adamantly they oppose eliminating the filibuster.
Yet progressives remain adamant on the issue, saying the rules have been exploited by Republicans to scuttle issues a majority of Americans voted for.
“The filibuster is something that gives Mitch McConnell a veto. And that has to stop,” said Warren. “We watched him use it during the Obama administration and he is already using it now during the Biden administration. We weren’t elected to come here and be a debating society, that gives Mitch McConnell a veto on every single piece of legislation that is needed to help American families.”
Warren and Sanders, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, both called on Harris to ignore or overrule the parliamentarian on the minimum wage.
Harris, who served in the Senate until being elected vice president, has yet to personally weigh in. But Biden has said several times that his administration will respect the rules of the Senate.
That includes honoring the parliamentarian’s ruling and keeping the filibuster in place. Sticking by that position likely means that a whole host of Democratic priorities from health care, to immigration to police reform could be held hostage to a 60-vote threshold. Progressives want Biden and Harris to be the ones to encourage Senate Democrats to change the rules of the game.
“Many of us are telling the administration, especially Vice President Harris, that people at home don’t really understand how this stuff is done here, and they don’t care how it’s done as long as it’s done,” said Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan.
But congressional leaders have defended Biden’s approach. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi rejected the idea that the White House wasn’t doing enough to power through legislation of consequence.
“The White House was right out there with this very early,” Pelosi said on their role in the minimum wage fight. “We have no complaints.”
Pelosi also rejected the idea that there won’t be other opportunities to pass a minimum wage hike. But other progressives aren’t so sure.