Progressive Democrats Face Resistance on Infrastructure

Progressive Democrats Face Resistance on Infrastructure

Progressive Democrats Face Resistance on Infrastructure

The party is split between a stubborn establishment and what some activists see as its overly conciliatory left flank.


In perhaps his most ambitious move since taking office, President Joe Biden just unveiled the centerpiece of his economic agenda, a multitrillion-dollar public investment plan for improving the nation’s neglected physical infrastructure and confronting the climate crisis. The first half of the proposal, called the American Jobs Plan, includes billions for traditional infrastructure like roads, bridges, and energy grids, as well as funds to create new infrastructure for electric vehicles and incentivize wind and solar projects.

A second element of the package, which was omitted from the jobs plan and won’t be introduced until next month, will deal with “care infrastructure,” and is expected to include measures to expand child care, provide paid family leave, and extend the child allowance, among other proposals. Overall, it’s the most ambitious public spending plan the country has seen in decades, and the green stimulus spending itself is five times the amount the Obama administration passed in 2009. The American Jobs Plan is so expansive—from the Protecting the Right to Organize Act to significant investments in home care for the elderly—that it can be difficult to capture its whole scope. At the same time, progressives and activists say the package, which its advocates regard as the best way to pass aggressive climate policy, is not nearly enough.

A broad coalition of outside groups, under the banner Green New Deal Network, are joining a handful of Democratic lawmakers in pushing for $10 trillion of green investment over a decade, through the Transform, Heal and Renew by Investing in a Vibrant Economy (THRIVE) Act. It’s being pitched as a “down payment” on the Green New Deal, and is aimed at winning over more Democrats, like Representative Debbie Dingell, who didn’t cosponsor the Green New Deal resolution in 2019 but is now leading the THRIVE push in the House. Many on the left flank of the party also fear that separating the care infrastructure piece from the physical infrastructure package will doom the attempt to significantly invest in the caregiving economy—potentially squandering a once-in-a-generation opportunity. A new ruling from the Senate parliamentarian clears the way for Democrats to potentially bypass a filibuster and move additional reconciliation bills forward, but the procedural tool still has its limits.

Congressional progressives are calling for a “single, ambitious package” that combines both the physical infrastructure and care infrastructure components of the plan. “We believe this package can and should be substantially larger in size and scope,” Progressive Caucus Chair Representative Pramila Jayapal said in a statement last week. “This human infrastructure cannot be secondary to the physical infrastructure needs we have as a country. We have a limited window to get this done—we must seize our chance to build back better with economy-wide investments that work for working families and communities of color.”

Alan Barber, policy director at the Congressional Progressive Caucus Center, echoed that the infrastructure and care portions of Biden’s agenda should be combined into a single package, saying that it would also expedite matters. “It’s not a question about having a bigger, larger package and not moving quickly,” Barber said. “If we don’t move quickly we lose the political will, it can get mired down in the Senate and we might not be able to get the wins that so many advocates, grassroots organizations, and activists have pushed for so many years.”

Barber added that Democrats need to look to 2008 and 2009, when they had a trifecta of control but constrained their response to the financial crisis, leading to such a prolonged recovery that the economy had not fully recovered before the pandemic hit. “If we don’t seize the opportunity going big and go for a big package now, something that’s really transformative, we’re missing a huge opportunity,” he said. “And it’s an opportunity we have when the economy can actually support it. We have low interest rates, we don’t have to worry about inflation, we have a tax system that has tilted way too much towards the rich.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi hasn’t publicly committed to a specific timeline, but Democratic leaders have privately indicated that they hope the package passes the House by July 4. Conservative Democrats, meanwhile, are already threatening to hold the legislation hostage unless they secure a big tax cut for the wealthy, through a repeal of the Trump-era cap on state and local tax deductions, known as the SALT deduction.

“It’s ironic how swiftly some Democrats spine up and organize themselves on an issue that counters their supposed platform,” said Kaniela Ing, climate justice campaigns director for People’s Action. “If the SALT crew can hold the line on tax breaks for rich people, then progressives can hold the line to win the structural change we need.”

Representatives Josh Gottheimer and Tom Suozzi last week vowed not to support any change in the tax code that doesn’t reinstate SALT as part of the deal. Suozzi also told Politico that “there’s certainly a lot of support” among House Democrats for restoring the deduction. “The question is, who’s willing to draw a line in the sand on this issue?”

Not progressives, it turns out. During a call with reporters on Tuesday, Jayapal said the Congressional Progressive Caucus “doesn’t have a position” on repealing the SALT deduction, adding that some members feel strongly about it. The Progressive Caucus hasn’t taken a position on the repeal, in large part, because some of its members support it. New York Representatives Jamaal Bowman and Mondaire Jones back the repeal, along with many other lawmakers in the state.

Stances on restoring the full deduction tend to break down along regional lines, with support found in high-tax states like California and New Jersey, where the wealthiest would disproportionately benefit. But, broadly speaking, Democrats are prioritizing the 1 percent-friendly tax break, facing pressure from Democratic governors, business leaders, and big blue-state donors. Last week, Pelosi told reporters that they’re hoping to get it in the package. So far, New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the notable exception. She previously voted against repealing the SALT cap and continues to oppose it.

While the conservative wing of the Democratic Party is more than willing to threaten to withhold their votes to extract concessions, progressives aren’t expecting to leverage their position in a similar manner. More likely than not, they won’t draw any real red lines for this package, according to several House Democratic staffers. Jayapal and other left-leaning members have repeatedly emphasized that progressives aren’t interested in being the Freedom Caucus of the left, because they fundamentally believe that persuading their colleagues, and not obstructing legislation, is the effective way to govern. But if they can’t get the opposing flank to change their minds, they might not be the ones doing the governing.

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