When House Democratic leaders introduced a $3 trillion relief bill on Tuesday to address the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) sounded like she was on a mission to sink the bill for omitting key progressive priorities.
But what began with a roar, ended with a whimper on Friday when progressives narrowly lost a procedural vote to postpone consideration of the legislation. Ahead of the critical vote, the caucus did not whip its members to cast votes against the bill.
That decision not to whip opposition to the bill among the caucus gave some the impression it was made to avoid the embarrassment of a potential loss. “No one wants to be seen as trying and failing,” said a progressive House aide, who was not authorized to speak to the press.
Friday’s party-line vote by the full House was surprisingly close, however, indicating that a more strident effort might have produced a different result. Every Republican, 14 Democrats and the one independent voted against the bill, providing Democratic leadership a win by just an eight-vote margin.
As with any massive spending bill, the HEROES Act ― as the House legislation is called ― contained a host of policies popular among both the Democratic Party’s moderate and progressive wings. It would allot $1 trillion in aid to cash-strapped state and local governments, provide hazard pay for essential workers, mandate tougher health and safety standards for health care professionals, rescue the U.S. Postal Service, enact universal mail-in voting, and issue a second $1,200 stimulus payment that Americans would be eligible for regardless of their immigration status.
Still, critics found the inclusion of certain conservative features especially insulting because the bill was a partisan document designed to serve as an opening bid in talks with Senate Republicans, rather than a bipartisan compromise. To plug holes in health care coverage that would emerge due to the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, the legislation offered more Medicaid funding to states and expanded and subsidized COBRA, a program enabling people to keep the health insurance they had from their previous job. In lieu of the COBRA expansion, Jayapal had advocated allowing unemployed Americans to temporarily enroll in Medicare, which has lower costs and would enable more people to stay covered.
“When you hear the word ‘COBRA’ you just get shudders down your spine,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), a vice chair of the CPC, told HuffPost on Friday. “It ends up increasing complexity and that’s discouraging to people.”
If we’re going to have a negotiating starting point, why not have our priorities in it? Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.)
And Democratic leaders insisted on preserving a system of routing government cash assistance for small business and their workers through middlemen and tax credits, rather than guaranteeing paychecks directly as Jayapal demanded.
Automatic stabilizing mechanisms ensuring that crisis-related safety net expansions could remain in effect as long as the economy remained poor ended up on the cutting-room floor as well. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters that while they were good policy, the stabilizers simply made the already-expensive bill look too costly on paper.
After quietly accepting imperfect relief legislation in March and April on the grounds that there was no alternative, progressive lawmakers finally made it seem like they were fed up.
“There is greater frustration now than there was at the beginning,” Khanna said. “If we’re going to have a negotiating starting point, why not have our priorities in it?”
Jayapal and her co-chair, Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), demanded in a Tuesday letter that Pelosi delay a vote on the bill until next week. Jayapal also gave Pelosi a piece of her mind on a Tuesday conference call with the House Democratic Caucus.
The following day, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), the CPC’s whip, developed a plan to try to rally the 18 votes that she estimated it would take to sink the procedural vote on a “rule” clearing the path for a vote on the broader bill. If they were successful, it would at the very least give progressives more time to make their case to leadership.
In the event though, the CPC merely surveyed its more than 90 members ― some of whom also belong to the business-friendly New Democrat Coalition ― to gauge how willing they might be to resist the bill.
Caucus leadership never explicitly asked its varied members to vote “no” on the rule.
Of the 14 Democrats who did vote “no,” nine were members of the CPC and the rest were moderates in swing seats who tend to break with party leadership for political rather than ideological reasons. Neither Jayapal nor Pocan responded to requests for comment on whether they tried to coordinate with the moderates in a cross-ideological coalition against House leadership.
Some progressives celebrated the outcome as evidence of how close the CPC is to achieving its goals, given the slightest effort.
“We want to applaud the progressive leaders in Congress who rallied votes to push this bill in the right direction,” said Waleed Shahid, a spokesman for Justice Democrats, a left-wing group that supports primary challenges against moderate Democratic incumbents. “It came late, but we think it’s an important step towards building a stronger, more aligned progressive bloc that delivers real relief.”
David Segal, executive director of Demand Progress, which strongly encouraged members of Congress to stop the bill, framed the week’s events as an argument for greater discipline among outside progressive groups. Even as Jayapal fumed about the bill on Tuesday, a coalition of liberal organizations that includes MoveOn and Indivisible had already praised the legislation.
“If more groups had come out louder, in greater numbers, faster, then we probably could have won the rule vote,” he said.