House progressives are expressing dismay over the debt limit deal hammered out by President Biden and Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), worried that it could set a dangerous precedent for GOP-steamrolling in the future.
A number of the left wing’s heavyweights, including Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), have come out against the deal on principle, which is expected to head to the floor for a vote as soon as this evening.
While progressive lawmakers have been careful not to outright criticize Biden, many of them are frustrated that he didn’t invoke the 14th Amendment as a way to keep the government afloat while also preserving benefits for working people they had sought.
Now, they’re warning that it could spell trouble for future negotiations.
“We can’t do that ever again where we’re holding the entire American economy hostage,” Progressive Caucus Whip Greg Casar (D-Texas) said Wednesday on MSNBC about Republicans, echoing sentiments from Jayapal and a handful of other members who have also said they will vote against the bill.
“It’s a ransom deal,” Casar added.
Progressives have not been shy about where they stand as the bipartisan talks continue. They have taken issue with eligibility changes for programs like food stamps, arguing that additional work requirements on top of existing stipulations for struggling families is an extra burden.
Two weeks ago, progressive lawmakers sent a letter to Biden asking him to use his constitutional authority to get around a divided Congress, a move that was embraced by activists and allies but dismissed by other Democrats who said it would take too long to examine under an already ticking clock.
“Of course he could have used the 14th Amendment. He could have also fought back rhetorically, by making clear that the GOP was solely responsible for endangering the economy,” said progressive commentator Cenk Uygur, host of “The Young Turks.”
Indeed, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) urged Biden to use the 14th Amendment in a statement Wednesday in which he announced he would be voting against the deal. He was the first senator who caucuses with the Democrats to take that stance.
“The fact of the matter is that this bill is totally unnecessary,” Sanders said. “The President has the authority and the ability to eliminate the debt ceiling today by invoking the 14th Amendment. I look forward to the day when he exercises this authority and puts an end, once and for all, to the outrageous actions of the extreme right-wing to hold our entire economy hostage in order to get what they want.”
Despite trying to get out front of the negotiations by airing their concerns publicly, some progressives in and outside Congress feel they’ve been overlooked in the process. Heading into the final stretch, special interest groups and advocates are less ready to give the president a pat on the back than those working within the confines of Capitol Hill.
“Biden is the world’s worst politician. He should have never negotiated with the Republicans,” Uygur said. “But now that he agreed to be held hostage by Republicans, they’re considering shooting the hostage — and he’s going to get half the blame.”
“He could not have played it worse,” he said.
Progressive lawmakers have been careful not to call out the president, who recently launched a reelection campaign. Instead, they have kept their comments mostly diplomatic while working the phones privately to get as much as they could in the final deal. Progressive leaders convened a 90-minute call with fellow caucus members after the text of the bill was released and held press briefings to emphasize their ongoing concerns.
Many progressives, including Jayapal, have said they believe the president is working in good faith, acknowledging that he was in a difficult position and was essentially doing what he could to avoid an economic disaster.
In a call with reporters Tuesday, the progressive suggested Democrats were in a tough spot, giving credit to Biden for working to “minimize the most extreme demands and impulses of these MAGA Republicans” and raise the debt limit for two years, which would effectively keep key government programs Americans rely on like Social Security untouched.
“Importantly, the Republicans did not win any major concessions,” Jayapal noted.
As the whip count was underway Tuesday and into Wednesday afternoon, however, progressives expressed a willingness to stand in principled opposition to what they see as an agreement that doesn’t represent their flank’s standards for helping working class people.
Beyond the immediate messaging, they are also looking ahead to a potential rerun of the scenario in the coming years. While the debt ceiling will be funded until 2025, there are concerns among liberal Democrats about what could happen if Republicans take back the White House and maintain control of the House in the upcoming cycles. Threatening the country with a default that would have cataclysmic consequences and potentially leave poor and middle-class Americans lacking essential benefits is not tenable, they say.
Facing a likely last-minute passage, some are now advising about the urgency of finding alternatives to avoid such a drawn-out partisan fight in the coming years.
“I believe there are options, especially in the future as the president has said, where we shouldn’t have this debt ceiling,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), a rising star on the left who enjoys a close relationship with Biden.
“But the blame should not be on Joe Biden. The blame needs to be on the Republicans in Congress who are using an instrument that’s riding roughshod over the Constitution.”
The activist class has been less diplomatic. Those who aren’t tasked with helping to broker a deal within a divided government see the negotiations as unacceptable and working against some of what they have been pushing for the party to represent.
“I’ve been on the inside of this kind of work for a minute,” said Kaniela Ing, national director of the Green New Deal Network and a former state representative from Hawaii. “If something is the right thing to do, vote yes. If something is the wrong thing to do, vote no. I think that’s how the vast majority of actual people see these bills.”
Some have also criticized Democrats for squandering a chance to make prior adjustments to how Washington handles the nation’s debt limit when they were in power in both chambers of Congress.
“When Democrats chose not to raise the debt ceiling when they held a trifecta, they did so knowing that they were leaving working people vulnerable to Republicans’ nefarious games,” Alexandra Rojas, executive director of Justice Democrats, said in a statement.
Rojas, like others within the progressive movement, pointed to areas where Republicans’ work on the deal cuts against the Democratic agenda, saying that certain provisions were “clearly designed to benefit corporate giants, ultra-wealthy tax cheats, and increase our already bloated military funding at the expense of working families.”
Progressives believe their “no” votes give credibility to their caucus at a time when skepticism of government is rampant.
“The appearance of bipartisanship for bipartisanship sake, that’s not the point here,” Ing said. “It’s not moral symbolism, it’s simply doing the right thing.”