Thank you, progressives, for saving the Biden agenda

Congressional Progressive Caucus has proved a committed partner in governing

As the Build Back Better fight shows, House progressives have shown themselves to be flexible, strategic and committed partners in governing, Greenberg writes.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
As the Build Back Better fight shows, House progressives have shown themselves to be flexible, strategic and committed partners in governing, Greenberg writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted November 24, 2021 at 6:00am

Around this time last year, my Indivisible co-founder and I wrote in a Roll Call op-ed that House progressive were building something new, exciting and powerful. 

Sure enough, the House last week passed a once-in-a-generation piece of legislation that would deliver on long-standing Democratic priorities: lowering drug prices, expanding Medicare, affordable child care, paid leave, deportation protection and work permits for many immigrants, and historic investments in housing, home care and climate change. 

And the country has the Congressional Progressive Caucus to thank.

It’s easy to get wrapped up in the drama of the negotiations, or the back-and-forth about what’s in the bill, and miss one underlying fact: The only reason this bill has moved to the Senate and is on track to become law is because of the organizing of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Let’s rewind the clock back to this summer. President Joe Biden’s agenda had been divided into two linked vehicles: the bipartisan infrastructure package, to be passed through regular order, and the Build Back Better reconciliation package. The former was negotiated first, by a relatively small slice of Republican and conservative Democratic senators, and passed the Senate. But from the beginning, leadership was clear: These packages were linked. To pass only one would be simply insufficient. 

This was important, because it was clear that a set of conservative Democrats were invested in the infrastructure package — and not nearly as invested in the rest of the Democratic agenda. When nine conservative House Democrats, led by Rep. Josh Gottheimer, demanded a vote on the infrastructure bill by the end of September, their plan was obvious: Delink the two bills, pass the infrastructure measure before the final details of the reconciliation bill were negotiated, and then shrink it dramatically or tank it entirely.

In the lead-up to the infrastructure vote, conservative Democrats signaled repeatedly that they did not intend to negotiate with any sense of urgency on Build Back Better. Sen. Joe Manchin went so far as to publish an op-ed calling for a “strategic pause” on the process until next year — which is to say, until an election year, when chances of passage would have fallen dramatically. Conservative Democrats felt no pressure to pass the reconciliation measure because their priorities were already moving with the infrastructure bill.

If it weren’t for House progressives, this plan would have worked. The progressives, led by Rep. Pramila Jayapal, had approved a reform package last year designed to turn the Congressional Progressive Caucus into a disciplined negotiating bloc. They identified their collective priorities for the Build Back Better agenda early and negotiated their inclusion into the budget resolution.

When the Gottheimer Nine tried to force a vote on the infrastructure bill last month, progressives did what was necessary — they withheld their votes until a final Build Back Better package had been agreed upon. Thanks to the political conditions they created and boosted by grassroots support outside the Capitol and across the country, progressives got the reconciliation package out of the House. 

The fight to Build Back Better is not over; the legislation is now before the Senate and Biden has committed to get it across the finish line. But let’s be clear about what happened. Progressive members of Congress organized to build their collective power. They developed their collective, cross-issue priorities. They compromised — over and over — to get to a final deal. In short, they worked as a voting bloc to save the Biden agenda.

Conservative forces within the Democratic Party love nothing more than advancing the narrative of an inflexible, nonstrategic progressive wing. As the Build Back Better fight shows, the reality is precisely the opposite. Progressives have been flexible, strategic and committed partners in governing. It’s the conservative members of the party who spent months issuing contradictory, unpopular demands and demonstrating over and over again that they are not invested in the success of the negotiations or Biden’s presidency.

It’s time to dispense with the myths and throw the party’s support behind the progressives who are determined to actually enact its agenda.

Leah Greenberg is a co-founder and co-executive director of Indivisible, a group dedicated to fighting for progressive policies. She previously worked on Capitol Hill and as a State Department adviser.