Progressives are ramping up public pressure on Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) amid growing concerns that President Biden will cave to the GOP on the debt ceiling talks.
Progressive Caucus Chairwoman Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.); Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Greg Casar (D-Texas); and other high-profile liberal lawmakers convened Wednesday to address growing worries about Republicans’ unwillingness to budge on a debt limit deal and questions about how far Biden is willing to go to appease them.
“None of this is normal, and it shouldn’t be treated as such,” Jayapal said to reporters in a lengthy press briefing, raising what they characterize as unnecessary cruelty from the GOP.
“It is not actually about debt or deficit,” she said. “It is about keeping cash flowing to the wealthiest Americans and biggest corporations.”
Casar, a newly elected House progressive, called the countdown to a possible June 1 default a “dangerous and manufactured crisis.”
“This is not a simple political disagreement,” he said.
Progressives have strongly criticized congressional Republicans’ stubbornness over tax cuts to the ultra-rich and a desire to impose “work requirements” on social safety net programs including Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which would theoretically make it harder for everyday Americans to obtain them. The McCarthy-led request has become one of the most offensive to progressives in the days-long negotiations, pushing them to dial up their own rhetoric against it.
In a rare move, dozens of left-wing lawmakers wrote a letter last week asking the president to invoke the 14th Amendment — which would essentially allow for an increase to the current debt ceiling limit regardless of what Congress wants — in order to maintain important programs running for those who rely on them.
Caucus members asked that Biden move forward with “all possible measures” available by the White House instead of giving in to “bad-faith” Republicans in Congress. The president suggested it’s more of a timing issue, with a hard deadline looming.
“The question is, could it be done and invoked in time that it would not be appealed,” Biden said in an apparent attempt to give something to anxious liberals wanting a more drastic solution. But others in Biden’s orbit don’t believe it’s being seriously considered.
Democrats across the party have voiced their frustration with how the talks have played out, and progressives are feeling particularly enraged. They have accused Republicans of “playing stupid games,” as Omar, the caucus’ deputy chairwoman, told reporters Wednesday, with working-class people likely to suffer the most.
Liberals who helped elect Biden into office say they shouldn’t have to settle for a deal that allows Republicans to make drastic changes to struggling Americans’ quality of life.
“As the public debate has advanced in recent weeks, Democrats have been bracing themselves to accept half a loaf on the debt ceiling,” said one former Senate leadership aide.
“At this point, the president and his team need to show and demonstrate the wins that Democrats can claim and surface the places of contrast where Democrats can hold vulnerable Republicans accountable.”
Activists and advocates have rallied around progressives on Capitol Hill to offer additional manpower from the outside, holding town halls and making the cable news rounds to explain how Republicans’ position — and Biden’s possible bending to it — could impact everything from veterans’ benefits to child care, education, travel and foreign policy.
A debt default “would be catastrophic for American national security,” said Joel Rubin, who served in the Obama administration as deputy assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs.
Rubin, echoing other progressives concerned about security, called a worst-case scenario a “potential self-inflicted wound, for partisan purposes, our country can’t afford.”
The press briefing laid out progressives’ anger over McCarthy’s and so-called MAGA Republicans’ strategy. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who joined her colleagues to lambaste McCarthy’s position, is set to address voters in certain swing districts where GOP lawmakers are up for reelection. She will join activists and warn about what she and others see as the potentially detrimental consequences of their conservative counterparts’ strategy.
“Progressives are really putting the work in to make sure Republicans get the blame they deserve in this political moment,” said Mary Small, chief strategic officer at Indivisible.
“Republicans’ cuts are really unpopular, and it plays really badly at home when their constituents hear they could make this all go away by signing a discharge petition. We know because our activists are having these conversations,” Small said.
While advocates have worked the ground, progressives in office have outwardly turned their sights sharply at House Republicans — including those aligned with former President Trump — for what they say is putting the public in a compromising position. The attention, pressure, and possible blame, they say, should be focused on Republicans who have so far refused to compromise.
Biden takes a secondary focus to all of that, many agree.
“The problem is not the White House,” Jayapal stressed.
Still, some on the left acknowledge that the implications stretch well beyond the daily finger-pointing of Washington politics, and as negotiations have continued with little progress, the frustration toward Biden has notably increased behind the scenes.
“I think the president has been trying to talk to them, but time is running out,” Jayapal added.
Biden just launched his 2024 reelection campaign and is already facing questions about how he could fare in a general election matchup against Trump or Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Asked by The Hill about whether progressives have made the potential electoral ramifications clear to Biden and administration officials, Jayapal said yes.
“He won the White House because of a diverse vibrant coalition across the country and particularly in key states,” Jayapal said. “What we’ve said to the White House is to understand that we need to make sure that our vibrant, diverse coalition, represented by so many of the members in the Progressive Caucus, continue to be enthusiastic.”
Indeed, many are eager to remind Biden that they helped contribute to his popularity at critical moments, including leading up to the midterms, by pushing for legislation that’s popular with constituencies of young and working-class voters.
“We have made it clear that there would be a real backlash,” Jayapal said.