As Congress considers more legislation to respond to the coronavirus outbreak, progressives who held their noses and voted for past bills—which they found woefully lacking—are now facing a choice: how far down the Freedom Caucus road they want to go.
That arch-conservative group of lawmakers was well-known for exerting influence on GOP leadership, and on legislation, by threatening to tank or stall bills. Since Democrats took the House majority last year, progressives have increased their influence but have been reluctant to embrace those tactics.
But as the coronavirus crisis deepens—and as their own party’s response continues to fall short in their eyes—some progressives are increasingly saying that if there ever were a time for hardball, it’s now.
Progressives, one party aide told The Daily Beast, “need to use proven Freedom Caucus tactics and communicate as a team and voting bloc to build power in negotiations… This is bigger than any one member’s agenda and bill. And this shouldn’t just be done for phases 3.5 and 4 of COVID, but generally moving forward.”
Some key left-wing lawmakers are beginning to sound similar notes. “Incrementalism is not helpful in this moment,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) during a Monday press call organized by the Congressional Progressive Caucus. The House freshman with the outsized bully pulpit then issued a thinly veiled indictment of Democrats’ embrace of past COVID-19 bills she’s railed as corporate “bailouts.”
“For people to say, we got something—we got a nickel, a dime, in a trillion-dollar bill—so, we should support it, is unacceptable,” said Ocasio-Cortez, who confirmed she’d oppose an imminent relief bill if it is narrowly tailored to small business and hospital funding.
There’s building pressure on the left to secure at least some of what progressives have asked for, something made more urgent by a feeling that they’ve struck out in key legislative fights despite having a greater share of the Democratic majority—and greater public influence—than they did before.
“This is why we worked to flip the House,” said Leah Greenberg, co-founder of the liberal activist group Indivisible, on Monday. “To give Democrats a say in moments like these.”
It’s possible that only a few progressives will revolt against that particular bill, which is priced at over $400 billion and is slated for a vote in the House on Thursday. Looking ahead, there is broad recognition among the party’s left wing that another upcoming bill, sometimes dubbed CARES Act 2.0, absolutely must be a vehicle for the progressive priorities that failed to become law in the last three coronavirus response bills.
In a joint letter Wednesday sent to Democratic leadership, nearly two dozen liberal groups laid down a clear marker: Get a bill that’s progressive, or vote against it.
“We fought so hard to win back the House in 2018—to make sure that we had a voice in negotiations like this,” wrote the groups, which included left-wing activist heavyweights like Indivisible and Justice Democrats. "So far we've not seen the House enough of a collective push-back on negotiations for the agenda we really need.”
What’s less clear is how willing most progressives are to test their new clout and numbers with a more high-stakes play to shape that bill—and how willing they’d be to cross key leaders like Speaker Nancy Pelosi to do so.
Congress is expected to begin talks on that larger bill soon, and progressive leaders have kept their plans closely held. On Monday, Progressive Caucus co-chairs Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) and Mark Pocan (D-WI) declined to say if they’d mobilize their dozens of members against another less-than-satisfactory bill, saying they’d reserve judgment until the final text is released. But Jayapal did say progressives “have real concerns about giving away leverage now without getting the priorities we need” as talks continue.
Few progressives will argue that the coronavirus bills Congress has approved have been as reflective of their platform as they’d hoped. The first three versions of coronavirus relief legislation contained some $4 trillion in new spending to fight the crisis, but very few of the items they fought for most, and a lot of items they loathe.
For weeks, there’s been consistent agreement among progressives about the kinds of things they should be fighting to get included in COVID-19 relief legislation. On April 9, the Progressive Caucus sent a letter to Pelosi, urging her to prioritize a number of economic and health care-related measures in the next big bill.
Some of those items include beefing up direct cash payments—to at least $2,000 per person, with $1,000 per children, per month through the end of the year—securing increased hazard pay for frontline workers, creating a European-style federal program to guarantee paychecks for millions of employees, and ensuring the government fully covers all COVID-19-related care costs. They also have pushed for expanded food stamp benefits, bans on evictions and foreclosures, and enacting a vote-by-mail requirement for the 2020 elections.
To Ocasio-Cortez and like-minded progressives, there needs to be a battle right now to get these priorities in the bill to be voted on this week. There’s a concern that if they do not, progressives won’t be taken seriously in upcoming negotiations.
“Just as importantly as the inadequate policy provisions, this bill gives away all Democratic leverage,” said Ezra Levin, co-executive director of Indivisible in a statement Tuesday about the “stopgap” deal. “This bill may be our last chance to get the things we need. Mitch McConnell has already said he doesn't want to push through another bill, and if he does, it won't be for weeks.”
Indeed, some on the left believe that they have been already outflanked by conservatives in shaping the legislation to fit their outlook.
In particular, they point to the half-trillion dollars made available in the CARES Act to help companies and small businesses impacted by the economic lockdown prompted by the pandemic. The Treasury Department under Secretary Steven Mnuchin has broad discretion to award those loans, and while there’s some oversight on how it’s allocated, progressives worry it represents a major windfall for corporate interests while most working-class and middle-class people get a one-time $1,200 check.
Among the outside groups pushing Congress for these proposals, there’s some frustration that Democratic leadership hasn’t been able to secure more policy wins. Haeyoung Yoon, policy director of the labor advocacy group Domestic Workers Alliance, said her group wants to see more fight from lawmakers.
“I think the Democrats, but also all policymakers, need to really understand what this moment is,” Yoon told The Daily Beast. “This virus is not discriminating against anyone. Our policies should not be discriminating… We really want our congressional leadership to understand the scale of this crisis and make sure that people are getting what they need in this moment.”
Some prominent voices on the left, however, are wary of any revolt against legislation that might be good but not perfect—or against party leaders like Pelosi and Schumer.
“Let’s actually make sure we pin the blame where it is,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, a powerful labor union. “We are actually negotiating with people who have been really hostile to what government does on a day to day basis.”
Weingarten told The Daily Beast that Democratic leaders have done the best they can under the circumstances. “Do we need more? Should this first CARES Act have been much more worker focused than corporate focused?” The answer is yes, she added, and that “the fact it was worker-focused at all” was because of Democrats’ efforts.
“I’m not saying we shouldn't be fighting for all this,” said Weingarten. “But let’s understand that elections do matter here, you know.”