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Progressives Show Patience With Biden, At Least Until Relief Bill Passes

Updated at 11:20 a.m. ET

President Biden wasn't many progressives' first, second, third — or maybe even 20th — choice in the crowded 2020 Democratic presidential primary.

But ever since winning the party's nomination last spring amid the onset of the global pandemic and economic downturn, Biden has vowed to govern as the most progressive president since Franklin Roosevelt. He's even made a large portrait of FDR the centerpiece of his Oval Office to underscore that goal.

Many progressive lawmakers and activists say they're largely pleased with the early weeks of Biden's presidency, and the open doors, phone lines and Zoom sessions they've been met with by the White House.

Progressives are "strong partners in everything we do in this White House," said Emmy Ruiz, Biden's director of political strategy and outreach. "We view them as critical and key partners in the White House. They're an important part of that broad coalition that elected Joe Biden."

"Understanding I'm grading on a curve — it's not Bernie Sanders' agenda, and it's not Medicare For All, and it's not going to be a wealth tax. It's not going to be anything like that right now," said Faiz Shakir, an adviser and onetime campaign manager to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. "But in the areas where we can get the 50 votes in the Senate and a majority in the House and see how progressive we can be with it, well, I think we're getting near-best-possible outcomes."

Shakir played a role in urging Biden to record a video this week encouraging a unionization effort among Amazon warehouse employees in Alabama — a step that went far beyond how previous Democratic presidents have engaged in specific labor disputes. It led to big cheers from progressive quarters.

But whether Biden should seek 50 or 60 Senate votes for his priorities is now the source of the most public rift yet between a president who built his reputation on compromise and working with Republicans, and the progressive base he's spent the past year courting and drafting policy with.

Biden made a $15-an-hour minimum wage — a long-sought progressive goal — a part of his $1.9 trillion economic rescue plan. The House included the increase in the version passed last week with a party-line vote. But the Senate's parliamentarian ruled the proposal doesn't fit within the narrow and complicated rules that govern the chamber's budget measures, which can pass on simple majorities, rather than the 60 votes needed for most other bills to advance.

California Rep. Ro Khanna has led a House Democratic effort to pressure Vice President Harris, who also serves as the president of the Senate, to overturn that ruling. Harris, Biden and Senate Democratic leaders have made it clear that isn't happening. So, as the Senate prepares to vote on the massive spending bill later this week, the measure won't include an agenda item progressives have rallied and organized around for years — and that Biden campaigned on implementing.

The White House maintains that Biden is "deeply committed" to raising the minimum wage. "We were disappointed that the parliamentarian ruled against included minimum wage," said Ruiz. "What the president has said, and what we are all incredibly committed to, is finding other avenues and other lanes for accomplishing this goal of reaching an increase in the minimum wage."

But progressives like Khanna worry those other avenues will fall short. "If you're not going to pass this through reconciliation, how are we going to get a significant minimum wage increase?" he asked.

Many progressives were especially frustrated that Biden was already backing off the wage increase a couple of weeks before the parliamentarian ruled. "Well, apparently that's not going to occur because of the rules of the United States Senate," Biden told CBS News last month during a sit-down interview before the Super Bowl. "My guess is it will not be in it."

"You know, it's like a gut punch to millions of people," recalled Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal, who chairs the House Progressive Caucus. "Because he came out so bold on including $15. And then suddenly to preempt made no sense to us."

Khanna likened Biden's interview to a lawyer confiding to a jury that she or he wasn't fully sold on the merits of the case.

Are progressive frustrations enough to sink the larger relief package, Biden's top legislative priority, without the wage boost? Almost certainly not.

"I would vote for it," Khanna conceded. "Because I don't — in good conscience can't deny people unemployment insurance. I can't deny schools the money they need to reopen. I can't deny people checks they need to pay rent or make their daily expenses."

Asked whether she'd make the minimum wage an ultimatum for her final support, Jayapal was careful to say her vote would be based on the bill as whole — not just that one aspect. "If this package were to get significantly watered down by Senate Democrats, that would be a problem for progressives in the House."

Like most other progressives, Jayapal is stressing the fact she still sees the Biden White House as a good faith ally, albeit an ally she and other progressives will have many tactical disagreements with. "It's been a very good relationship. That doesn't mean we're not going to tussle and tangle at times."

A portrait of Franklin Roosevelt is a centerpiece in President Biden's Oval Office, signaling his promise of an ambitious presidency in a national crisis.
Stefani Reynolds / Getty Images
Getty Images
A portrait of Franklin Roosevelt is a centerpiece in President Biden's Oval Office, signaling his promise of an ambitious presidency in a national crisis.

That overall feeling — frustration, but no clear effort to derail what will be one of the largest spending bills in U.S. history — is why the White House is so confident the rescue plan will pass the evenly-divided Senate this week and that House will approve the final amended version, too, sending it to Biden's desk by the end of next week.

But the frustration and worry bubbled up so quickly because many progressives see the minimum wage hike as the first of several Democratic priorities that will almost certainly die in a hyper-partisan Senate that's split 50-50, but still operates under rules requiring 60 votes — so, support from at least 10 Republicans — to break a possible filibuster and pass legislation. (Filibuster rules for administration and judicial nominations have rapidly disappeared over the past decade.)

"There's going to be a whole lot of things coming down the pike," said Shakir, pointing to voting rights legislation, measures aimed at strengthening organized labor and campaign finance reform, among other Democratic priorities. "And you can imagine that those are areas where Republicans are not going to offer the 10 votes to get you past the 60-vote threshold."

More and more Democrats have called for the elimination of the legislative filibuster in recent years.

Biden has only reluctantly — and conditionally — backed those calls to end the filibuster, and they may be moot anyway. Moderate Democrats like Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona have said they'd vote against rules changes, making changes all but impossible at a time when Democrats only control the chamber through Harris' tie-breaking vote.

With those existing Senate rules making the type of sweeping changes Biden campaigned on all but impossible in Congress, the tension that bubbled between the White House and progressives this week will almost certainly increase. "We appreciate, we recognize that the Biden administration on many policies has adopted things that Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, progressives have been talking about," said Khanna. "But ultimately the question is, are we going to have a view of structural change that is necessary to make those laws?"

And if progressives aren't quite ready to exert their will on the Biden administration by stalling the president's priorities in Congress, they're making it clear that without big tactical changes like eliminating the legislative filibuster, Biden and the rest of the party might suffer consequences in the midterm elections next year and in 2024.

"Those things are very, very popular across the country in Republican and Democratic districts," said Jayapal, referring to the $15 minimum wage and campaign finance reforms, among other progressive priorities. "And nobody is going to be interested in procedural reasons why we can't deliver."

"If the Senate becomes under Democrats what it was under Mitch McConnell — the graveyard where all good things go to die — that is going to be a huge problem for us in the midterms," she said. "Both in retaining control of the Senate and retaining control of the House."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.