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'I'm not a progressive': Fetterman breaks with the left, showing a maverick side

Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., has drawn fire from progressives over his fierce support for Israel and broken with immigration advocates with his support for curtailing migration.
Sen. John Fetterman.
Sen. John Fetterman.Ting Shen / Bloomberg via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., is breaking with progressives on hot-button issues with his fiery support for Israel and calls for Democrats to engage on tougher immigration laws, disappointing some on the left as he shows an independent streak.

He’s also continually scolding Democrats for not pushing Sen. Bob Menendez out of office after he was indicted on federal charges of taking bribes and acting as a foreign agent for Egypt, which the New Jersey Democrat denies.

In the 2022 campaign, Fetterman's ties to Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., prompted GOP opponent Mehmet Oz to tell voters he’d be a mere “sidekick” for the democratic socialist. But Fetterman's recent stances point to an unorthodox brand of blue-collar liberalism, with a dash of outsider populism, in a purple state that is expected to be hotly contested again in the 2024 elections.

In an interview, the first-term Pennsylvania Democrat said his critics shouldn’t be surprised.

“I’m not a progressive,” Fetterman told NBC News. “I just think I’m a Democrat that is very committed to choice and other things. But with Israel, I’m going to be on the right side of that. And immigration is something near and dear to me, and I think we do have to effectively address it as well.”

People rally outside the office of John Fetterman.
Protesters call for an end to U.S. military aid to Israel outside Fetterman's office on Nov. 13.Jose F. Moreno / The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP file

Fetterman insisted he can be pro-immigration while also favoring policies to restrict the flow of migration to manageable levels, disagreeing with progressives who oppose new limits on asylum and bash some of the ideas in the negotiations as cruel.

“It’s a reasonable conversation — until somebody can say there’s an explanation on what we can do when 270,000 people are being encountered on the border, not including the ones, of course, that we don’t know about,” he said. “To put that in reference, that is essentially the size of Pittsburgh, the second-largest city in Pennsylvania.”

The senator added that while it’s “not ideal to have this conversation” about asylum and parole policy in connection with an aid package for Israel and Ukraine, “it’s still one that we should have,” given that Republicans have made it an essential condition to advance the supplemental bill.

“Progressives better do that because we can't leave Israel — we can’t sell them out, and we can’t sell Ukraine out, and we have to deliver on this,” Fetterman said. “I just would very much like to get a deal to deliver this critical aid.”

Fetterman kept up his scathing criticisms of Menendez, mocking the New Jersey senator and suggesting he stop criticizing President Joe Biden for negotiating an immigration deal with Republicans.

“Oh, Bob Menendez,” he said, laughing. “What a guy. What a guy. He’s still running his mouth against Biden right now.”

“He needs to go. I don’t understand why he can be here, having expelled Santos,” he said. “But I’m sure there might be a very innocent explanation of having gold bars in your mattress and overstuffed envelopes of cash.”

Fetterman’s fierce and unwavering support for Israel breaks sharply with demands by Sanders to withdraw U.S. military aid and has drawn searing criticism from the left as the Palestinian death toll soars amid the Israeli government’s bombing campaign in retaliation for the Oct. 7 Hamas attack.

“People liked Fetterman because of his populist outsiderness and empathy toward all kinds of people," said Waleed Shahid, a progressive organizer who has rallied criticism of U.S. support for Israel as the conflict escalates. "But his extreme jingoistic support of this war has made many people feel that he holds a hierarchy of human value where Israeli lives are simply more important to him than Palestinians.”

Some Republicans are shocked — in a positive way.

“For a lot of Republicans, it’s been a pleasant surprise,” said Christopher Nicholas, a longtime GOP strategist based in Pennsylvania, referring to Fetterman’s stances on Israel, border policy and Menendez. “Here is a freshman taking some strong stances. … I just see someone who’s ‘Well, that’s what I think, and I say what I think.’”

Nicholas said he’s particularly struck by the fact that Fetterman is out front in refusing to let up on Menendez.

“I know how clubby the Senate is, having worked for Arlen Specter for 18 years. So I get it,” Nicholas said. “But I find it perplexing that you haven’t had a lot of other Democratic members of the Senate saying it. Perhaps that’s because he’s a freshman and he hasn’t been totally inculcated into the ‘Here in the Senate we do things differently’ line of thinking.”

Fetterman chief of staff Adam Jentleson said the senator has “always had” the policy positions he’s espousing today, even though Republicans wanted to paint him as a socialist in 2022 and “some folks on the left are pretending” he has since changed his beliefs.

“He’s just being consistent,” Jentleson said. “He spent the entire campaign telling people he wasn’t a down-the-line lefty.”

Fetterman has had a roller-coaster two years — from suffering a stroke in 2022, struggling through a general election debate, winning the race and then checking himself in for clinical depression this year. Fetterman still has trouble processing verbal comments, which is why he uses an instant transcription app on his phone while speaking to reporters, as he did during this interview.

Apart from his support for Sanders' presidential campaign in 2016, Fetterman has drawn plaudits from progressives for his calls for legalizing marijuana and abolishing the Senate filibuster to raise the minimum wage. He still mostly votes in alignment with Biden.

Some fellow Pennsylvania Democrats in Congress have positive things to say about Fetterman.

“What I see — and I’ve had the chance to run into him a couple of times recently — is a man that is doing well, that is his own person that stands on his own two feet, even if it’s in shorts,” said Rep. Madeleine Dean, D-Pa., who represents a suburban Philadelphia-area district. “And he’s standing up for what he believes in. So I wouldn’t characterize it another way. I’m just happy he’s serving.”

Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., who faces re-election next year, praised Fetterman as “a great colleague” when asked if the senator is showing a maverick side.

“I think John’s doing everything he can to serve the state,” he said. “And I think he’s doing well.”