All of a sudden, AOC and ‘The Squad’ are Biden’s allies — and moderates are in his way

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Democratic Senator from West Virginia Joe Manchin (C) is followed by members of the news media after leaving the Senate chamber during a procedural vote on raising the debt limit, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC (EPA)
Democratic Senator from West Virginia Joe Manchin (C) is followed by members of the news media after leaving the Senate chamber during a procedural vote on raising the debt limit, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC (EPA)

During the Democratic primary, Joe Biden was the last choice of most of the progressive members of Congress. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the young self-described democratic socialist, said in 2020 that “in any other country, Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party”. She backed Senator Bernie Sanders. Others, like Representatives Pramila Jayapal, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, backed Sanders alongside her, while newer members of “the Squad” who toppled incumbent Democrats also positioned themselves on the Sanders side of the party.

But eight months into his presidency, as moderate Democrats continue to raise objections to major parts of his massive social welfare program, the very progressives who reluctantly pulled the lever for Biden in order to defeat Donald Trump are now emerging as his biggest defenders.

First, some backstory. In April, Biden proposed a major infrastructure package that included not just conventional infrastructure projects like roads, bridges and public transit, but also massive social spending programs such as childcare, home care for elderly people, and support for people with disabilities.

Eventually, that bill was split in two, with the first half being a traditional infrastructure program negotiated on a bipartisan basis, intended to show Biden could do what he said he could do — negotiate in good faith with Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. The other half would be a $3.5 trillion package filled with liberal spending priorities. It would be passed through a process called reconciliation, which would enable Democrats to get it through the Senate with only 51 votes, thereby sidestepping a filibuster.

The initial Senate bill passed on a bipartisan basis as expected, with McConnell and 18 other Republicans voting for it. But since then, moderate Democrats have sought to stymie attempts to pass the second part of the legislation. Senator Kyrsten Sinema, the former Green Party activist-turned moderate Democrat from Arizona, said she would not support the $3.5 trillion price tag of the reconciliation bill. Similarly, Senator Joe Manchin has said that he will not support spending $3.5 trillion without looking into the national debt and inflation.

But save for that, moderates have been pretty mum on where they are. When I asked Representative Stephanie Murphy, a moderate Democrat from Florida, last week on the Hill what she wanted in the reconciliation package, she said she wanted it to be “more targeted and fiscally responsible” — but then added that she would not be discussing negotiating terms with the press. Similarly, Politico reported that Sinema won’t even discuss specifics with the White House until the bipartisan infrastructure bill passes the Senate.

Sinema’s desire to protect a piece of legislation she shepherded is understandable, particularly since she is the first Democratic Senator elected from Arizona in this century. But at some point, principled discussion can transition to outright stubbornness, something Representative Ro Khanna, a progressive from California, articulated when he told CNN that Sinema is “is holding up the will of the entire Democratic Party.”

Conversely, progressive Democrats like AOC, Congressional Progressive Caucus Co-Chairwoman Jayapal and Sanders have been more reasonable. Sanders, whom Biden beat for the Democratic nomination for president last year, has emerged as a consensus-seeker in his new capacity as Senate Budget Committee chairman, who pared down his initial ask of $6 trillion to $3.5 trillion to tide over Manchin and Sinema. Despite his reputation as being principled to the point of cantankerousness, he’s shown a willingness to listen to his colleagues now that he’s someone with tangible power (and, truth be told, his reputation as a bomb-thrower was never fairly founded but was a product of the bitter 2016 primary contest).

Similarly, for all of the criticism of Ocasio-Cortez and “The Squad”, AOC told me herself that “our agenda is [Biden’s] agenda”. That was in a conversation where the Representative from New York explained why she wouldn’t vote for the first infrastructure bill without the reconciliation bill too. Such statements don’t mean she is unwilling to pick fights with the White House or with House leadership when need be, but rather that she recognizes the moderates are being unreasonable and cryptic about their plans.

Similarly, when moderates like Manchin have tried to trim back the ambitious social welfare aspects of the reconciliation bill — such as including dental, hearing and vision in Medicare coverage by testing them for income, or putting in place work requirements for an expanded child tax credit aimed at eliminating child poverty — it has been progressives who have pushed back.

“I have been really clear that we have to deliver the benefits quickly without big burdens in people’s way and all of the research shows that when you do that kind of means-testing, you actually prevent people who desperately need the benefit from getting it,” Jayapal told me on Tuesday.

Washington — including those in the White House, Congress and the media — tends to beatify bipartisanship as an ideal to be aspired to rather than a means to an end. Indeed, professional Washington sees bipartisanship as an end in and of itself. But as moderates continue to fetishize it at the expense of actually accomplishing the President’s agenda, those reluctant progressives have become the first line of defense for Biden’s most ambitious proposals.

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