Hold the Line: The Progressive Caucus Makes Its Stand

Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman discusses the fight to pass the Biden reconciliation bill.


This week, progressives in the House of Representatives were able to stall an effort by the centrist dark-money group No Labels to separate the infrastructure portion of President Joe Biden’s reconciliation bill from the tax reform and social spending components, hoping that the latter could then be defeated at a later date. One of the leaders of the effort, New Jersey Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, joins Ryan Grim to discuss where the fight to pass the bill goes from here.

[Introductory credits theme.]

Ryan Grim: Josh Gottheimer never had a doubt in his mind. At the end of August, he and a gang that dubbed themselves “the unbreakable nine” used their leverage to force House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to schedule a vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill on Sept. 27, last Monday, hoping to cleave it off from the broader Reconciliation package, which includes steep tax hikes on the rich and robust social spending.

Following Pelosi’s concession, Gottheimer and some of his allies huddled with donors to, and leaders of, the dark money group No Labels, which finances their campaigns and was instrumental in organizing the opposition. Gottheimer told them, “You should feel so proud, I can’t explain to you, this is the culmination of all your work. This would not have happened but for what you built. It just wouldn’t have happened — hard stop. You should just feel so proud. This is your win as much as it is my win.”

No Labels even cut an ad for them:

Sen. John McCain: We live in a land made of ideals.

Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux: From people who fought and suffered.

Rep. Filemon Vela: We call them Americans.

Abraham Lincoln (played by Daniel Day Lewis): The fate of human dignity in our hands!

Rep. Jared Golden: Something that’s bigger than yourself.

Professor Lawrence Lessig (played by Christopher Lloyd): How many times do you think it takes?

Rep. Vicente Gonzalez: This is the America that freed slaves.

Jefferson Smith (played by Jimmy Stewart): No sir, I will not yield.

Rep. Josh Gottheimer: We are all Americans.

RG: Rep. Kurt Schrader, former chair of the right-wing Blue Dog Coalition celebrated the victory’s ability to let them focus, next, on fighting the reconciliation package, which he told the group he opposed. He said: “Let’s deal with the reconciliation later. Let’s pass that infrastructure package right now, and don’t get your hopes up that we’re going to spend trillions more of our kids’ and grandkids’ money that we don’t really have at this point.”

But House progressives quickly responded, vowing to block the bill if it came to the floor.

Newscaster: Washington Congressmember Pramila Jayapal tweeted: “It’s not the infrastructure bill THEN maybe the Build Back Better package down the road. That wasn’t the deal.

Progressives won’t back down. We’re fighting the people’s fight and we’re going to deliver the entire Build Back Better agenda.”

Newscaster: And when the decision was made to split the two bills, what we said in the Progressive Caucus, and we’re a 96-member strong progressive caucus, we said: A majority of our members would not vote for the infrastructure bill.

RG: Gottheimer remained confident over the next several weeks, saying privately he was sure progressives would fold. But on Monday, it was clear there weren’t enough votes to pass the bill, and Pelosi pulled it from the floor, rescheduling it for Thursday, a Sept. 30 showdown.

On CNN that day, Gottheimer gave the bill a “1,000 percent” chance of being passed.

Wolf Blitzer: You said earlier today: “We’re going to vote today on this infrastructure bill and that the vote is not going to fail.” Congressman, do you still stand by those two statements?

JG: 1,000 percent, Wolf, and I’m optimistic that it’s gonna be a late night, but we’ve got the Chinese food out and we’re going to be eating late.

RG: He never got close, and the bill was pulled again, leaving Gottheimer to meekly argue that the House had not been technically adjourned, which meant that Friday would still be the same “legislative day” and negotiations were ongoing, and he was grabbing more Red Bull and Gatorade and — Hey! Where’s everybody going?

Newscaster: Moderates keeping hope alive for a separate vote on infrastructure. Congressman Josh Gottheimer tweeting, “It ain’t over yet! This is just one long legislative day — we literally aren’t adjourning.”

RG: The journey of the Congressional Progressive Caucus from punchline to counterpuncher involved decades in the wilderness, followed by a rapid consolidation of power that took Congress by surprise this week. The roots stretch back to the 2009 and 2010 fight over the Affordable Care Act, when an outmatched CPC was outmaneuvered and forced to swallow a bill many of its members thought that was far from what was needed, and one that fell short of red lines they had drawn.

More than 50 members of the caucus had signed a letter vowing not to support any healthcare reform bill that didn’t include a “robust public option.” And all of them did just that in the end.

Two things were clear: the House and Senate needed Democrats who were more progressive, and those progressives needed to be better organized. A few new organizations popped up in an effort to bring that into being. One called itself the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, with its abbreviation a troll of the DCCC — the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — which it was designed to counterbalance. Separately, bloggers Jane Hamsher and Glenn Greenwald — who later co-founded The Intercept — organized a political action committee to back progressive challengers in primaries.

After the midterm wipeout of 2010, many of the fights would take place with little media coverage. Two of the first of the new era came in 2012, when a coalition of progressive groups, including the PCCC, intervened in two open primaries — one in San Diego and one in New Mexico. They were building on lessons learned from 2006, when a coalition of environmental, labor, and online liberal groups successfully defeated DCCC Chair Rahm Emanuel’s chosen candidate in several primaries.

In San Diego, progressives were backing Rep. Lori R. Saldaña over right-wing businessman Rep. Scott Peters. In New Mexico, they were for Eric Griego against the conservative Michelle Lujan Grisham. They lost both narrowly, and the losses reverberated.

Earlier this month, Peters cast one of three votes against the party’s measure to allow Medicare to negotiate the price of prescription drugs in the Energy and Commerce Committee. Lujan Grisham, however, has become governor of New Mexico, where she battles progressives from her statewide perch. Thanks in significant part to the organizing around Griego’s campaign, which evolved into a statewide effort, Rep. Deb Haaland ran and won as a progressive.

We spoke with Griego a few months ago, and if you haven’t listened to that episode, it’s still worth going back and checking out.

In any event, when Haaland was elevated to interior secretary, the primary campaign to replace her wasn’t left versus center or left versus right, but who was the most progressive. Even in a race dominated by party insiders, it went to Melanie Ann Stansbury. This week, the newly sworn-in Rep. Stansbury publicly vowed she would hold the line with the Progressive Caucus, and block the bipartisan bill unless both moved together. That’s a big shift from having Lujan Grisham in that seat.

Adding rank-and-file members like Stansbury to their public list in some ways was more valuable than compiling a list of the usual suspects. What it did is it showed Pelosi the opposition wasn’t just deep — it was broad.

Throughout the 2010s, the ability of Democrats to raise small dollars gradually expanded, punctuated and driven forward by the Senate campaign of Elizabeth Warren in 2012 and then the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign of 2016. Though he fell short, he showed that there was a major base of support for his democratic socialist agenda, in terms of both people and money.

That same year, Pramila Jayapal, an antiwar organizer whose inspiration to enter electoral politics was Rep. Barbara Lee, was elected to Congress. She and Rep. Mark Pocan of Wisconsin set about transforming the progressive caucus from what former co-chair Raul Grijalva had described to me as a “Noam Chomsky book-reading club” into a cohesive unit capable of wielding influence.

In 2018, when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez upset Joe Crowley, her suggestion of a “sub-caucus” that could be more nimble and vote as a bloc was seen internally as both a hopeful sign and something of a challenge. If the caucus didn’t get itself organized, it would be supplanted by something else.

During the next Congress, progressives withheld their votes in committee in a fight to strengthen H.R.3, the bill that allows Medicare to negotiate drug prices. They won. Trump was still president and little that the House did was going to become law, but it was a preseason win of sorts that showed the tactic could work.

In early 2021, Sen. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer used CPC intransigence to persuade Manchin not to push too hard for deep cuts to unemployment benefits, telling him progressives would take the whole bill down in the House if he did.

Over the summer, the number of progressives willing to hold the line on the infrastructure bill continued growing, particularly as the holdout senators refused to even lay out what they were for and against. But it wasn’t a certainty until this week that the progressive bloc could hold strong. Ocasio-Cortez said she doesn’t blame Gottheimer for miscalculating. “Honestly I see why he was so certain. CPC never stood up like this until this week,” she said. “Until this week, the most we could scrounge together for a showdown was like 14 members.”

One signal that the progressive spine was much stiffer than people realized was the entry of two unexpected fighters into the fray. One was Brendan Boyle, who we interviewed two weeks ago. A member of both the New Democrats and the CPC, he wasn’t the type of firebrand you’d expect to be out there making wild threats, yet there he was, publicly, on the record standing beside the Squad.

Internally, the effort got a major boost several weeks ago when Bonnie Watson Coleman who, at 76, is in just her fourth term in Congress, and survived catching Covid amidst the chaos of Jan. 6. Watson Coleman was a leading statewide politician in New Jersey who became state party chair and general assembly majority leader, titles not typically associated with comrades of the Squad. But in a caucus-wide meeting, several weeks ago, she galvanized the push to keep both pieces of legislation linked by speaking out on behalf of the strategy, and on Thursday she was one of three progressives called into a meeting with Pelosi, as it all hung in the balance.

We’re joined now by Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman.

[Musical interlude.]

RG: So when you first got to Congress, I think a lot of people didn’t realize quite how progressive you are. And I’m curious if that is something that’s a misperception that people have had of you throughout your career. I think they see: Oh, this is somebody who was a Democratic state committee chair, this is somebody who was a majority leader, this is somebody who’s comfortable working with the establishment, has been part of the establishment, she couldn’t be an outspoken progressive like the people in the Squad.

Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman: Mhmm.

RG: Yet, legislatively, some of the most interesting things you’ve put forward: You introduced the job guarantee with Ilhan Omar and then you introduced a bill to decriminalize drugs across the board with Cori Bush.

Is that a misperception that people have had of you for a long time? And where do your progressive politics come from?

BWC: Well, I think if you ask anybody about me in the state legislature, even in state government, they’ll say that she was always fighting for civil rights, and equal rights, and affirmative action, and wherever government wasn’t serving the needs of the people that it should, she was speaking up then. If that has translated into being a progressive, that is just who I have always been. I mean, that was who my father was, that was who grew out of a family that spent at least Sunday dinners, if not every night talking about politics and our obligation to others.

My family was very much into: To whom much is given, much will be required. And we’re not wealthy, but whatever we have, we should be sharing, and we have a responsibility to look out for those who don’t have voices. So that’s what I did. I mean, that’s, that’s the way I live my life. That’s the way I did my work, my legislation on the state level.

When I came to Congress, that never changed. So one of the first bills that I introduced was a bill that would make sure women who found themselves pregnant could have access to change their healthcare needs. The guaranteed jobs program, the substance abuse reform act, the decriminalization of personal use, are more a reflection of what I saw would address what was happening to communities, particularly poor communities, Black and Brown communities, and how the system was treating them differently and how their opportunities for a good decent life to take care of themselves and their families was impacted by things that were supposed to be neutral on their face, but had a disparate impact on Black and Brown, and poor.

RG: Can you talk a little bit about the substance abuse legislation? Have you found you’ve been able to make some progress? I mean, obviously, the party is not willing to go that far. But where do you see that heading?

BWC: Most recently, I saw a bill that we passed that addressed fentanyl, and I’ve seen builds that we’ve considered that get at pieces of what I’m trying to accomplish, like making sure that people aren’t, people are recognized to have mental health problems or physical health problems as opposed to needs to be incarcerated. And so, as you know, this particular Congress has been so involved in so many things simultaneously, that while I have a number of co-sponsors on both of these bills, we’ve not been actively pursuing them. We’ve been trying to get these two infrastructure bills done, because we think that they have such a transformative impact on our collective communities, on our economy.

I haven’t tested how far the caucus would go on this issue. I know that when we found that white folks — particularly young white folks and middle class white folks — were addicted to opioids, that we recognized that that substance abuse was a healthcare issue, and not a criminal justice issue. I simply want that issue of substance abuse, personal use, to be treated in that same manner, irrespective of what the substance is, because I believe that there’s an over incarceration of minorities in particular, because of their substance abuse use. And I believe that they’re incarcerated; they’re not treated; they’re not given the kind of therapies and opportunities to clean up. They go in, they spend their time, and they come back just as fragile and vulnerable as when they went in. And that’s wrong.

Now, with regard to the guaranteed jobs issue, we also know that there’s an underrepresentation of minorities in the workforce, and that they are communities with high unemployment disproportionate to the national unemployment rate. And we need to think creatively about how do we make those communities healthier and stronger and safer. And one way is to provide good, decent paying jobs, with the kind of support mechanisms — whether it’s paid family leave and things of that nature, so that people have a way out of poverty.

And we figured that we could try it even as a pilot, and then we could do it at no cost to the taxpayers, because we would look at a transaction fee that takes place on Wall Street, that over a 10-year period would raise something like $700-and-some billion. So it would be money used for a good purpose.

[Musical interlude.]

RG: So on that question of moving people out of poverty or giving people pathways out of poverty, I wanted to ask you about the fight over the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the concurrent reconciliation packages that’s going along with it. You’ve played an outsized role in those negotiations.

A few weeks ago, there were some elements of leadership that were starting to think about separating the two tracks that had been linked together for a while. You pushed back against that in a caucus meeting with the rest of the Democrats. What kind of argument were you making at the time?

BWC: Well, the first time, I just simply asked for clarification, because I thought that we were always going to be considering these bills at the same time, and that since we couldn’t have just one big bill, we had to have these two bills, that we would have a verification of the reconciliation bill that I think is so vitally important before we voted on the bipartisan bill. And so that was my question: Am I hearing this? What am I hearing now? Explain this to me, because everybody’s kind of talking sort of vaguely about what we’re gonna do.

But the bottom line is this: This is the President’s agenda and we support this agenda fully. We want to get to yes to both of these bills. This is a very transformative opportunity. I call this our FDR moment where we’re not going to leave minorities out. And I call it the LBJ movement where we’re going to make sure that everyone is included here. But it looks at not only the physical buildings that need to take place — the roads and bridges and things of that nature — but it also looks at the family structure, the human infrastructure that needs to be protected, and bolstered, and given the freedom to participate in our economy moving forward.

The reconciliation bill has amazing things in it that go from childcare, to child tax credits, to equality in education to free, public, two-year college education. It goes to extending Medicaid to states who didn’t want to do that, making sure people have access to healthcare; it extends what Medicare would cover. It also has more investments in climate that are really very important to what we’re seeing that we’re experiencing, and recognizing. We’ve got to get on top of this stuff, because the threat to our well-being is right now.

And so, to me, I thought every Democrat, I would think every elected official, would be supportive of this kind of family infrastructure plan and that I recognize that the whole country is very much in support of the elements of that reconciliation plan, and that it’s Republicans, Democrats, independents, and anybody else that when you ask them: Do you support these initiatives? They say: Yes, at least 61 percent of the time. In some respects, some of these elements are even beyond 61 percent.

So, having said that, we believe that in order to get that for this country, and for this economy, and for our future, we must stick with the president and we must stick with the speaker. And we must hold fast to get both of those initiatives dealt with in a verifiable way before we vote on the bricks and mortar bill alone. We know that that’s going to pass at some point; we’re going to make sure that that reconciliation bill, which is equally important, passes.

RG: And when progressives started making that demand, there were a lot of people who said: Yeah, yeah, yeah. This is what progressives do. They make these demands and then we can ignore them and they’ll just fold and they’ll go away.

But first with your clarification question in caucus, but otherwise when you publicly said: No, no, no, I’m with them, I’m part of this organizing effort. And Brendan Boyle, who we had on here recently, when he joined — people started thinking, Oh, this is a broader and deeper alignment than we previously had understood.

So we’re recording this on Friday, on Thursday, the House had been planning on voting on this bipartisan infrastructure bill in the afternoon, you, Rep. Pramila Jayapal, and Rep. Katie Porter met with the House Speaker about going forward. What was the message that she conveyed in that meeting, and what was the response from the progressives?

BWC: So the speaker has been consistent in her support of this reconciliation bill. She says this is a combination of all of her work for the children, for the children, for the children. And he has been very strong in saying that we need to do both of these bills. She needed to understand that there was this broad support in her caucus to support her and the president in advancing this agenda. We know the speaker’s reputation. She’s not faint of heart, and she doesn’t put bills before the House to vote on those that don’t have the votes. And we were quite clear that there was a diverse and robust group of members in her House that are gonna hold fast to demand that we get to deal with the reconciliation bill, and that we get a verifiable — and I keep saying that, verifiable — commitment from the Senate on voting for that bill.

Because we thought we had a deal. We wanted $6.5 trillion. We ended up with $3.5 trillion. We’re not getting everything we want; America doesn’t get everything it needs. But it is a transformative move forward. And it is a once in a lifetime opportunity for many of us who are in Congress. And for the people, we can’t give up on this.

So, there was this sort of back and forth. I don’t even understand why moderates said: You’ve got to give us the vote by such and such a day. Why? Why can nine people tell you that you’ve got to get the vote on this issue? There’s no linkage to something that has to be done at that time. We need to do our work. We need to get to the point where we can go forward, and move forward, and achieve a yes on this movement forward. But we can’t do it by not dealing with the reconciliation bill. It doesn’t work for the country, that’s not what people sent us here for, that’s not what Joe Biden promised when he was running and even when he got elected. And we’re standing with the President. It’s not our agenda. It’s the President’s agenda. We happen to agree with the majority of that agenda.

RG: One thing I haven’t quite understood is, given how moving these two together is, as you said, the most likely way that you’re able to get both of them done, why is it that the speaker and, to some extent, the president were pushing yesterday to move the bill through? Or did they just want to be caught trying and show the moderates that they had tried? And I shouldn’t say moderates, because most of the caucus is for this bill; there’s just a small rump group of a handful of Democrats who are breaking off.

BWC: Well, this is my take. I don’t think this speaker was trying to force the vote yesterday. I think she was trying to completely understand where her caucus was.

RG: Mhmm.

BWC: Like I said, she’s not bringing votes up before the floor that don’t have the numbers to pass to the votes. And so I think that she was still in, and will continue to be in, information-gathering mode. And I think that she will find that we are steadfast in this and that the actual number of people — I don’t know exactly, I know it’s a good amount and it seems to be growing.

Because when we get people to understand this: Fundamentally, there’s no reason that we have to take this vote. There’s no reason that, right now, we’ve got to put people on the record yay or nay on this bricks and mortar vote without having this reconciliation where it needs to be. So if we hold fast, we can get to the reconciliation, people can understand that this is serious, that we’re not playing, we’re not wavering, we’re not weakening. We believe that this is the right movement on behalf of the people in this country, on behalf of this country, on behalf of this climate, on behalf of this economy, and that we want the opportunity to vote on both of these bills. But we know — from history — what happens to these important initiatives on behalf of working families, and the care economy, and childcare and education and things of that nature if we don’t hang together here. And we are going to hang together.

RG: And did you get the sense that the speaker was frustrated at the opposition or was part of her encouraged? That it meant: OK, now I am gathering information, because you don’t really know where the votes are until you really whip it hard and push, and OK, now I know where the caucus is, and we can move this to the next phase.

BWC: So this is what I do know. I do know that the speaker is very much committed to the elements in the reconciliation bill, that she has spoken to those things since I came into the House. And so I know that they are important to her. I know that the speaker as the leader and the unifier of the House wishes that we could move together as one right now — and we will, at some point, move together as one. And so she’s put a lot of effort into this. I don’t want to say that she’s frustrated. She’s strategic; she’s strong; and she’s committed. So I think that she’s going to do everything she can to see that we can get to yes.

RG: And Joe Manchin seems to be kind of holding firm at this point at his $1.5 trillion line. Are there any red lines that the Progressive Caucus is trying to draw? Or what’s the strategy to try to find common ground with him and with Kyrsten Sinema?

BWC: So our position has been: We started out with a $6.5 trillion hopefulness expectation. And we accepted the $3.5 trillion as a compromise because we thought it moves us in the right direction significantly. We’re not going to negotiate against ourselves.

Here’s, to me, a light at the end of this tunnel. It was not until yesterday that Joe Manchin would even give us a top line and some substance that he wanted to see in the bill. So I think that that’s a movement, that he recognizes that we are serious in the House about where we stand on behalf of the families in this country. And so I thought that was good news that he even ventured out to say that: I could go for $1.5 trillion. I think that was just an arbitrary number that he threw out as a way of saying, I’ve got an impact on these negotiations.

I honest-to-God can’t figure out Rep. Sinema. I don’t know what she believes in. I don’t know whose drumbeat she’s marching to.

RG: And you served with her in the House, briefly.

BWC: I did. I did. I served with her. And I knew he had always had good strong relationships with Republicans. I didn’t necessarily see her in this sort of position that she finds herself in right now.

And I compare her to Mark Kelly. Mark Kelly is running from the same state. He’s actually up for re-election, and I look at the way he votes and look at the way she votes, and hey, I don’t understand. I don’t want to characterize it. I just can tell you I don’t understand her.

RG: And after last night, where are you on the optimism scale that something good is going to come out of this on, let’s say, a 1-10 where a 1 — this is all gonna fall apart — and a 10 — we’re gonna get everything we want.

BWC: I don’t think we ever get everything we want. Because if we got everything we want, it would be $1 billion, it would be 6.5 trillion.

But I think that this is an encouragement that people recognize that there is serious opposition to leaving families out of the guarantee that something is going to happen. I pray that what happens is that we recognize that we do have time to work this out and we shouldn’t move hastily into trying to take any vote or stake out any claim in a vote until we work this out on behalf of all of our families.

And it’s not about me, it’s not about those individuals in the Progressive Caucus. This is the President’s agenda. And this is what he sees as his vision for the economy and for the country, for the people, and for the systems that haven’t worked and need to work, and, at the same time, to build up and protect our infrastructure which is sorely in need as well.

And so, I am definitely there. I want to vote. I want to vote for this bricks and mortar infrastructure plan. I support it. But I want to make sure that families are treated with the respect, the dignity, and the protection, and the guarantees that they need so that we all can benefit with this economy moving forward. And that there are significant investments into addressing our climate needs. And that we are ensuring that the future for my grandchild, and her children, and her children’s children will be safe and healthy.

RG: Well, Congresswoman, thank you so much for joining me.

BWC: Thank you for having me, Ryan.

[Credits music.]

RG: That was Bonnie Watson Coleman and that’s our show.

Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our producer is Zach Young. Laura Flynn is our supervising producer. The show was mixed by Rick Kwan. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor in chief.

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