Social Spending Bill Tests House Progressive Strength, New Rules

  • Congressional Progressive Caucus altered operations in 2020
  • Group hopes to get package passed with its priorities included

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The Congressional Progressive Caucus is set for the most significant test yet of the new rules it quietly instituted late last year in an effort to increase its power in Democratic-controlled Washington.

The push for the 96-member group, which includes those from both safe and vulnerable districts, to stay together on legislative priorities and sway the new president’s agenda is feeling the full force of the party’s urgency to compromise and pass two major bills before the election year.

In a play for leverage, the caucus was successful in delaying a vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill absent an agreement on the larger social spending and tax measure. But with President Joe Biden and party leaders aiming this week to reach agreement on a framework for the $2 trillion package this week and pass the infrastructure bill, the caucus faces the challenge in the final stages of negotiations of helping get it across the finish line with their top asks included.

Progressives have several advantages, including a large membership and shared policy goals with Biden. Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the progressive caucus chair, said the rules allowed the caucus to gain new strength through increased cohesiveness.

“It would have been very, very difficult to be in this position had we not done all the work for the last four years,” she said in an interview.

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Photo by Samuel Corum/CNP/Bloomberg
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) speaks during a House Progressive Caucus news conference outside of the West Wing following a meeting with President Joe Biden on Oct. 19.

To get to the next step—getting both bills passed—Jayapal is showing a willingness to compromise.

While the caucus initially said it wouldn’t vote for the infrastructure measure until the Senate also passed the social spending and tax bill, Jayapal said she’s discussing having the House vote on both measures as long as there is an agreement from the Senate to take up the social spending bill. The Senate has already passed the infrastructure package.

She also suggested flexibility on the priorities the caucus is pushing. After Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W. Va.) raised concerns Monday over paid family leave, Jayapal said the caucus’s priority of a “care economy” also includes elder care, universal child care, and universal pre-K.

“Three of the four are in,” she said.

Jayapal said she recognizes the difficulty of moving a wide-reaching bill with extremely narrow margins in the Congress. “I don’t think we’re drawing any red lines,” she said.

New Strategy

The caucus agreed to a number of institutional changes at the end of last year. The most visible was going from two co-chairs — Jayapal and Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) — to one chair.

Pocan said there was “no question” the change was helpful. Tasks such as pushing out a press release took far longer with two staffs involved. And it wasn’t always easy to stay on message.

“People used to play mom against dad, to talk to us and get one of us to commit,” Pocan said. “This way it’s easier.”

Among the changes, members are now required to cosponsor a certain number of bills supported by the caucus, attend a certain percentage of meetings, and vote with official caucus positions two-thirds of the time. Additional staff were hired and dues were raised. There’s also a new whipping process.

When Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) was first elected whip in 2019, she found the vote-counting process was “dysfunctional in many ways.” Vote whips were often done at the last minute and only about 10% to 20% of members would respond to questions on where they stood on issues.

Things are different this year. There’s a regular process for the whip to send out questions, Omar said, and there are rules for deputy whips. Now, about 80% to 90% of members respond.

The caucus also implemented what Omar referred to as a “buddy system” for the current negotiations, so lawmakers can “have someone that would help re-enforce this is what we agreed on, this is where we are, we’re almost there, we’re going to get it done.”

Omar said that had those structures not been in place the progressive caucus would “absolutely not” have been able to hold firm last month on demanding votes for the infrastructure and social spending packages go together.

“I don’t think we would have been successful,” she said.

Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.), the caucus deputy chair, said the changes were “an early kind of signaling to the caucus of the way Pramila was going to engage them.”

“That table setting has continued to serve us well through this point in the negotiations,” she said, adding that the rules will “serve us well in whatever we decide to do next.”

Work in Progress

Some progressive members previously shunned adding rules and requirements to the group, worried about being branded the Freedom Caucus of the Left—a reference to a group of the most conservative House members. But as members including Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) are quick to assert, the Freedom Caucus “is about blowing everything up” while progressives want to see both bills passed.

“The biggest test in front of us is getting reconciliation,” McGovern said. “The leverage being used now is not about trying to derail an agenda. It’s about trying to advance as good of an agenda as possible forward.”

Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), a member of the caucus since entering Congress in 2015, said Jayapal deserves credit for holding the caucus together and turning it into a force. But he recognizes the job isn’t yet done, and that in a worst-case scenario neither bill gets to Biden’s desk.

“I’m hoping and praying that Pramila’s strategy is effective in the long run, that it works,” Beyer said.

“That’s always the danger,” he added, regarding the possibility of failure. “The longer we postpone it, the more complicated it gets.”

Fight for Five

While it was a challenge for progressive members to stay united in their bid to delay a vote on the infrastructure bill, the hardest part—getting both the infrastructure and social spending bills to pass—is ahead, said Mary Small, acting national policy director of the Indivisible Project, a progressive advocacy organization.

“It is comparatively easy to use a voting block to kill a piece of legislation,” Small said. “It is much harder to use a voting block to win substantive concessions and then win the underlying legislation.”

Progressive caucus members decided on the five priorities they would fight for back in April. In addition to a “care economy” they are asking for an investment in affordable housing; lowering drug prices; investments in climate change; and creating path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

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It’s unclear if members of the caucus will vote for legislation that doesn’t contain all five priorities, but they’re already facing pressure from outside progressive groups. Small said there is “boiling, white-hot rage” at how much has already been cut.

If entire issue areas from progressive voters’ demands are left out of the bill, Small said lawmakers “will encounter rage from their base that will be sustained and follow them to next year.”

McGovern said progressives will push for as much as they can, but also noted the progressive caucus has shifted from a mindset of “all-or-nothing” to one where getting a majority of what they want is a victory.

“Whatever the reconciliation package is going to look like,” McGovern said, “it will be 100 times better than it would have been without the Progressive Caucus.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Emily Wilkins in Washington at ewilkins@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Kyle Trygstad at ktrygstad@bloombergindustry.com; Bennett Roth at broth@bgov.com

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