Shortly before the House voted to funnel an additional $ 500 billion in federal funds to coronavirus relief, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez took to the chamber’s floor and ripped into Republicans.
“It is a joke when Republicans say that they have urgency around this bill,” Ocasio-Cortez shouted into the microphone, mask in hand, as she pointed toward the GOP side of the aisle. “If you had urgency, you would legislate like rent was due on May 1.”
But Ocasio-Cortez, like many of her progressive colleagues, thinks her own party is also falling short: "I can’t go back to my community and give people false hope."
Yet so far, the fiery liberal, whose Bronx district has been among the hardest hit by the virus, is the lone Democrat to oppose any of the four rescue packages drawn up by congressional leaders. And she’s skeptical that many more progressive lawmakers will threaten to defect, potentially squandering a chance to shape the critical next phase of relief because it’s simply too hard to vote down aid — even if they think it’s not enough.
“There’s an enormous amount of pressure, I think, that progressive leadership is under, that’s saying, ‘Well, are you really going to vote against crumbs for hospitals?’” Ocasio Cortez said in an interview just before the vote last month. “I think a lot of that leadership is going to have to depend on outside agitation.”
Facing an unprecedented pandemic, some Democrats initially saw an opportunity to secure real structural change in the government’s response. But that hope hasn’t materialized as the bills largely have been negotiated by congressional leaders in a near-empty Capitol and Republicans, who control the White House and the Senate, have resisted progressives’ most ambitious proposals.
The dilemma of how to challenge party leaders is one that has vexed the caucus’ liberal wing since Democrats took back the House in 2018. Despite a cadre of high-profile newbies like Ocasio-Cortez and a pair of well-respected, policy-savvy senior leaders, progressives have often struggled to successfully wield their influence to shape legislation.
While conservative agitators often used a sledgehammer approach to drive the agenda when the GOP was in control, liberal leaders prefer to use quiet diplomacy.
Democratic Reps. Pramila Jayapal of Washington and Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, co-chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, frequently work behind the scenes with Speaker Nancy Pelosi to shape major bills. But some in the caucus complain they are disappointed with the final product — which usually skews toward the caucus’ moderate wing, the “majority makers” who delivered Democrats the House.
The coronavirus negotiations have been even more top-down than usual because lawmakers are spread across the country with a small group of leaders hammering out the details in Washington. And it’s even more difficult for the left to mobilize.
“This is just such a scary moment-to-moment crisis for people back in the states, including activists, that I think there’s a reluctance to wage big political fights right now,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.).
Democrats have helped secure much-needed funding for testing and hospitals, as well as programs like nutritional assistance, temporary student loan relief and paid family leave. But the spending on safety net programs pales in comparison to other GOP-backed programs, including a $ 500 billion fund devoted to big corporations and distressed industries.
Many of the left’s top priorities have failed to be included in the nearly $ 3 trillion in relief passed so far. Outside groups were urging Democrats to vote down the latest bill.
Progressive caucus leaders say they are determined to have a louder voice in the upcoming coronavirus aid talks, particularly in the Democratic-led House. Progressive lawmakers — backed by an increasingly restive grassroots base — are pushing a list of even more sweeping programs to help the tens of millions people who have lost paychecks and the 1.1 million people who have fallen ill with the virus.
Among their ideas: free coronavirus treatment, paid family and sick leave for all workers, free protective equipment, halting evictions and foreclosures, and relieving student debt.
The most vocal liberals are vowing to push bold ideas to rescue the economy and the overwhelmed health system — what they call “the people’s bailout.”
“Each of us in the CPC are unapologetic in our wishes. We need to be even more unapologetic. We need to be even more emboldened. This is not the time to be incremental,” Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) said during a recent Facebook Live event with progressive groups.
After going along with previous relief measures, Jayapal and her members have big expectations for the next bill. And Pelosi has privately said it could feature a major priority for the progressive caucus, according to people familiar with the discussions: a paycheck guarantee program. That bill, drafted by Jayapal and her Senate counterpart, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), would provide grants to businesses to pay 100 percent of worker salaries of up to $ 100,000 for three months.
"These are two really important provisions to keep people having a paycheck so that we can solve all of the problems that are going to happen economically with this coronavirus," Pocan said during a recent Facebook Live event, referring to the paycheck guarantee program as well as his own push for a "work sharing" program that keeps workers on the payrolls with the federal government helping to pay some of wages.
"We will be advocating for them as a caucus to get them into the CARES 2 package," Pocan said.
With Congress locked in its biggest fight over safety net programs in a generation, some progressives say they’re feeling a sense of hope. They see a federal government finally willing to spend massive sums on long-neglected health and social programs, and say it’s time to push for policies that would otherwise never stand a chance of a floor vote.
“The crisis has exposed real deficiencies in our health system, and I think points us in the way we need to go — in a way that a lot of people can accept now who were not necessarily fans of Bernie Sanders before,” Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), who belongs to the progressive caucus, said in a recent interview.
“I think you’re going to see a very powerful movement across the country to invest in public health and invest in a strong government that can meet the needs of the country,” Raskin said.
Still, previous rounds of negotiations on coronavirus relief have left progressives feeling deflated, if not outright furious. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass) called the last rescue package — which included $ 75 billion for hospitals and $ 25 billion for testing on top of the small business aid — “insufficient.” A broad coalition of progressive groups called it “pathetic.”
Congress has given out $ 50 billion for the airline industry, but none for the U.S. Postal Service. National steakhouse and sandwich chains could easily unlock funds from the Paycheck Protection Program, but many barbershops and beauty salons could not.
A $ 500 billion fund for corporations, at the behest of Republicans, came with no restrictions to limit executive pay — a provision that Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) called “bullshit.” And even some of the watchdog protections that Democrats added have been virtually stripped away by President Donald Trump while lawmakers remain homebound.
Still, not all progressives are ready to go to war over the next relief bill, with some parts of the country still not yet at their peak of coronavirus cases and lawmakers eager to quickly deliver more aid, including for states and cities.
“I think we have to be careful. I think we have to set priorities,” said Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), adding that the nation is still in “stabilization mode” rather than the long-term task of rebuilding or recovery.
“We’re going to have three or four more [bills], in my opinion. So we’ve got to figure out what’s most important to do,” said Yarmuth, a member of the progressive caucus.
Pelosi did make a big symbolic overture to progressives in an earlier round of negotiations, releasing a 63-page draft proposal in late March brimming with progressive priorities like carbon emission restrictions for airlines, minimum wage policies for companies that take federal aid and the nullification of some of Trump’s executive orders hampering union rights.
But the House bill never received a vote, and it was sharply criticized by some moderate Democrats who had to fend off GOP attacks about the plan.
Within a caucus that boasts nearly 100 members, it’s no surprise there are disagreements on tactics. But progressives are optimistic they’ll make progress — if not in this package, then the next.
“If you look at the history of this country, when did safety nets come in? The Great Depression. Good programs come out of desperate times,” said Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), a progressive caucus member. “I think this has shined a light on the fractures and the fault lines in our society.”
Burgess Everett contributed to this report.