For a moment last month, it looked like the broader left, both inside Congress and out of it, might be about to get its act together. Since the dawning of the pandemic, the national response to it had been written in a series of sweeping pieces of legislation with virtually no input from progressives, who had hardly organized themselves enough to even make coherent demands.
Instead of organizing as a bloc to make coordinated demands or threatening to withhold votes, the progressive approach has been to meet with leadership individually with legislative wish lists, with the hope that working behind the scenes will influence the legislation. “I think a lot of members are trying to squeeze in one-on-one conversations here or having their priority known there,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said in an interview with The Intercept last week.
That began to change when the Congressional Progressive Caucus had released, in late March, a list of “bold” legislative priorities for the next coronavirus rescue package. By April 9, they’d narrowed that down to key proposals, including a federal paycheck guarantee program, monthly payments of $2,000 to every household for the duration of the crisis, and a nationwide moratorium on evictions and foreclosures — provisions that would apply to everyone, regardless of immigration status.
Outside progressive groups also roused from their slumber. Starting with the CPC letter, activists negotiated with the quartet of the Squad, the leadership of the CPC, and the leaders of an array of progressive groups to find four demands in common to rally around.
The resulting coalition included more mainstream progressive organizations like MoveOn and the Working Families Party, as well as those further to the left, such as Justice Democrats, along with some who straddle the different wings, like Indivisible. After endless pushing and pulling, they agreed to the same principles CPC had developed for their demands: keeping people on payrolls, providing economic relief, protecting public health by expanding health care, and safeguarding elections.
Despite the public display of unity, there was never agreement on a real strategy between those on the inside and those on the outside.
The coalition launched its push for influence on April 20 under the banner of #PutPeopleFirst, with CPC co-chairs Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., and Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., as well as all four members of the Squad, touting the campaign. The news conference was the first of its kind during the crisis.
Within days, it ran into trouble. On Friday evening, the House passed the HEROES Act by a vote of 208 to 199, without many of those priorities and with many of those progressive groups confused about what was going on inside Congress. Fourteen Democrats in the House voted no, with Jayapal the lone member of CPC to vote against the bill.
Despite the public display of unity, according to sources involved with #PutPeopleFirst, there was never agreement on a real strategy between those on the inside and those on the outside. On April 23, Indivisible, with a few other groups, asked Democrats to pledge a no vote on the next coronavirus package if it leaves out their priorities. The ultimatum bothered some lawmakers in the coalition, who believed they shouldn’t be put in the position of voting against desperately needed aid, and that a public pressure campaign should focus on getting a majority of the Democratic caucus on board with the CPC’s demands.
Ocasio-Cortez had also threatened a no vote on the interim package during the April 20 news conference, which angered and surprised some of her colleagues, who believed they should be winning “positive support” instead, according to people familiar with the matter.
Indivisible national policy director Angel Padilla noted that there have been multiple attempts to form coalition structures over the last two months and that they decided to ask Democrats to pledge a no vote because “it became clear to us that there were a lot of groups who wanted to do something more aggressive.”
When the pledge failed, the coalition crumbled soon after. “Tactics like that don’t always succeed, and this one didn’t land as hoped,” Padilla added. “With that said, we have a bill that includes more progressive priorities than when we started. And we need to celebrate those gains while continuing to fight for more.”
On Tuesday afternoon, House Democratic leadership unveiled the new $3 trillion coronavirus relief bill, its opening offer in this next round of stimulus negotiations, and described it in the press as a messaging bill. Divisions among progressives emerged immediately. Jayapal confronted Pelosi about her paycheck guarantee bill being left out of the package in an “intense” call among Democrats on Tuesday, voicing concerns with the top-down approach to policymaking. Politico reported that senior Democrats pointed out that “she had no bill text, no budget score, and no Republicans behind it.” Despite the bill’s failure to include Jayapal’s paycheck guarantee, MoveOn released a statement, signed by a sweeping number of progressive groups, noting that it wasn’t perfect, but praising it and urging its passage, pledging to “mobilize their millions of members” to pass the bill.
Leaders of the outside progressive groups thought that the CPC was planning to roll over — not an unreasonable assumption after years of watching it happen — but it was a miscalculation and miscommunication. On Tuesday evening, CPC leaders sent out an official whip notice advising members to respond as “undecided” to questions about their position on the Democrats’ relief bill, according to an internal email.
With the MoveOn statement at hand, Pelosi was able to affirm to her caucus that she had won the support of progressive groups.
With the MoveOn statement at hand, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was able to affirm to her caucus that she had won the support of progressive groups, and she quickly dismissed the CPC request to delay the vote. She then rewrote the bill, introducing what’s known as a manager’s amendment, moving it to the right in key areas, including on relief for student debt.
Late Wednesday night, an aide to the CPC whip, Rep. Ilhan Omar, sent out a whip question to its more than 90 members, asking how they intend to vote on the rule for the HEROES Act, in addition to the vote on the final passage of the bill, and the proxy voting proposal. (A vote against the rule would prevent the bill from coming to the floor.) CPC members do have some leverage that they didn’t last time around: Most Republicans are expected to oppose HEROES, unlike with CARES, and Pelosi will need progressive votes. At the time the whip question was sent out, House aides said, there was no real revolt brewing.
Most of the CPC’s major legislative priorities — including Jayapal’s pet project, a paycheck guarantee program — did not make it into the legislation. Her paycheck guarantee proposal would “cover 100 percent of wages for workers earning salaries up to $100,000 to ensure that employers keep workers paid and out of the unemployment line,” according to a summary. Progressives note that the paycheck guarantee program enjoys broad support from the public and throughout the caucus, even among centrists and more conservative Democrats in the Senate, like Doug Jones of Alabama and Mark Warner of Virginia.
The leadership criticism of Jayapal’s legislation that emerged in the press — particularly that it didn’t have legislative text yet — grated on its backers. Democrats have been pretty open about the fact that the HEROES Act is a messaging bill, so the need for accurate legal language or Republican support seemed a convenient excuse. And ironically, members have not been able to obtain bill text from the Office of Legislative Council, which is responsible for producing legislative language, as the office faces a backlog due to the pandemic and typically prioritizes requests from leadership.
“I don’t understand the point of coming to the table and asking for half a loaf when you know that you’re going to have to negotiate from that with Republicans.”
“Progressives inside and outside of Congress have the power to help shape these bills moving forward but only if we find more ways to work together and have better coordination on strategy,” said Max Berger, who helped organize the #PutPeopleFirst effort and was previously the director of progressive outreach for Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign.
“I don’t understand the point of coming to the table and asking for half a loaf when you know that you’re going to have to negotiate from that with Republicans,” Berger said. “And at some point you have to ask yourself if the reason that Pelosi doesn’t include more oversight of the bailouts or regular checks to working people is because she just doesn’t believe in those things, not because they’re politically unhelpful.”
The previous week, Pelosi had called Jayapal’s proposal “very worthy of consideration.” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer offered similarly empty words at a pen and pad on Tuesday, telling reporters that he and Pelosi “believe the Jayapal proposal has great merit to it” and might be considered in future relief bills. Hoyer pointed to a similar, less comprehensive proposal by Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri for a federal paycheck guarantee program too, which is also backed by fellow Republican Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado.
Leadership bumping progressive priorities down the road is a pattern Ocasio-Cortez had warned about. “As much as we want to talk about these progressive priorities, you know, what prevents the same thing where members are consistently told and promised that their priority is going to be put into the next bill?” Ocasio-Cortez said. “And if it’s not going to be in this one, it’ll be in the next one, and the next one comes and it can’t be in this one, it’ll be in the next one.”
Mary Small, Indivisible’s legislative director, explained it this way in an emailed statement: “Republicans and Trump have put the country in a terrible place by refusing to advance policy solutions that match the scale of the crisis, so Indivisible and every responsible actor trying to save people’s lives have to deal with two things simultaneously: there are great things in the HEROES Act that we support enthusiastically and are ready to defend, and there are still gaps, and we’re ready to work with anyone, including the CPC, who has a plan to strengthen the bill before or during the vote.”
Some progressives also questioned CPC’s decision to put all their capital into asking for Jayapal’s paycheck guarantee — instead of pushing for bigger monthly checks or dramatically expanding Medicare and Medicaid — when low-wage workers would get less under her bill than under the current, beefed up unemployment benefits.
On Thursday evening, the day before the scheduled vote, WFP, which had signed MoveOn’s statement urging passage of the bill, instead joined others in calling for Democrats to “press pause.”
Groups like Demand Progress and the American Economic Liberties Project, meanwhile, remained consistent in their opposition, urging lawmakers to vote against the HEROES Act because of its “objectionable” provisions that benefit the wealthiest Americans.
On Friday, Jayapal came out against the HEROES Act, but apparently lacked the votes to make that an official CPC position, and noted she had not been whipping Democrats against it. In the end, 14 Democrats voted against the rule to consider the HEROES Act, including a handful of moderates in swing districts, the CPC co-chairs and vice-chair, all four members of the Squad, and Reps. Chuy García and Katie Porter. Independent Rep. Justin Amash also voted no. With just four flipped “no” votes, the HEROES Act would have been blocked from coming to the floor, sending a strong message to the Democratic leadership. The bill came to the floor later Friday evening, but this time, Jayapal was the only progressive vote against.
“While this legislation has some good elements, it ultimately fails to match the scale of this crisis,” Jayapal said in a statement announcing her no vote. “This is urgent and the American people cannot wait. We must choose differently.”
Update: March 15, 2020, 10:10 p.m.
This story has been updated to reflect the passage of HEROES in the House and the final vote count.