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Progressives split over Build Back Better's midterm impact

Sen. Elizabeth Warren says Democrats are headed for "big losses" in November unless they make good on Biden's tax-and-spending package and other campaign promises.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., during a Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee confirmation hearing in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 13, 2022.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., at a Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee confirmation hearing in Washington on Jan. 13.Al Drago / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

Progressive Democrats have been the most vocal cheerleaders for President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan, but now the most liberal wing of the party appears divided over the need to pass a big social spending and climate package to avert an electoral shellacking this November.  

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., took to the pages of The New York Times on Monday to make the case that Democrats face a midterm disaster if they fail to revive the stalled Build Back Better proposal and make good on other campaign promises to aid families.

“Democrats win elections when we show we understand the painful economic realities facing American families and convince voters we will deliver meaningful change. To put it bluntly: if we fail to use the months remaining before the elections to deliver on more of our agenda, Democrats are headed toward big losses in the midterms,” Warren wrote in a Times op-ed. 

“Time is running short,” she said, adding that Democrats in both chambers need to strike a deal on a revamped reconciliation package that can pass with 50 Senate Democratic votes calling for forcing corporations to pay higher taxes to help combat climate change and fund affordable child care and universal pre-K.

Six-and-a-half months before the crucial midterms, Warren isn’t alone in her sense of urgency and desperation about Biden’s stalled agenda. Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., who heads the fundraising arm of the Hispanic Caucus this cycle and is mentioned as a potential future Senate candidate, said Warren’s warnings are spot on.   

“We did amazing work to help the middle class with the [Covid-19 relief] American Rescue Plan. There are still families hurting,” Gallego said Monday. “Passing key pieces of Build Back Better, such as the child tax credit and child care subsidy, would be game changers for the 2022 election.”

But not all progressives believe the Democrats’ political fortunes are tied to Build Back Better. 

Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, one of the Progressive Caucus’s deputy whips, said it was “heartbreaking” to see the Biden package collapse in the Senate late last year. But Escobar, who represents El Paso, said she wasn’t ready to throw in the towel if Democrats can’t strike a deal on a slimmed-down package. 

“Democrats are the underdog going into the midterms. But I am not at all … prepared to predict what the outcome will be. And my own personal perspective is that I don’t wring my hands over what might happen,” Escobar said Monday in a phone interview from Texas. 

“I instead want to focus on what I can and should do, whether that be legislatively or whether that be politically. And politically, I’m doing a lot here at home and have been for many months … to ensure that El Paso remains a Democratic stronghold.”

Still, Escobar said, Democrats do need to secure legislative wins given that they could be back in the minority next year.   

“We don’t know what will happen, and we can never take for granted that we will maintain the majority,” she said. “We’ve got to look at the calendar and anticipate the worst, work for the best and, in the meantime, legislate as much as possible.”

Given Biden’s sagging poll numbers and the fact that the president’s party typically loses dozens of House seats in his first midterm election, Democrats have been bracing for a bruising. Republicans need to gain a net of five seats to flip the House this fall. And with the Senate split 50-50, the GOP needs to pick up just one seat to take control of the upper chamber.

But despite the new calls for action, Biden and the Democrats find themselves in much the same situation they were in last year: struggling to figure out what exactly Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., could support in a reconciliation package — if anything. Biden’s scaled-down $2 trillion package passed the House but was derailed in December when Manchin came out against it, sending his party back to the drawing board.

Democratic lawmakers said they’ve heard more discussion but seen very little real movement on a revised Build Back Better proposal.

Another Progressive Caucus member, Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., echoed a line touted by many of her moderate colleagues: Under Biden, Democrats have accomplished plenty; they just need to communicate their legislative wins more effectively. 

They include the bipartisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure package that Biden signed into law and the Senate confirmation of his Supreme Court nominee, Ketanji Brown Jackson, said Wilson, a Transportation and Infrastructure Committee member who has known Jackson’s family for decades.

“We’ve done so much for the constituents throughout this whole pandemic. And I think we just need to message it, better because so many people have benefited from the Biden administration’s actions,” said Wilson, a self-described Warren fan.

“I appreciate her. I love her. I know what she means,” Wilson added. “But I think what we need to do is state-by-state messaging and fighting to stop these Republican governors for taking credit for what our president has already done.”

Warren countered the idea in her op-ed, by saying: “Democrats cannot bow to the wisdom of out-of-touch consultants who recommend we simply tout our accomplishments. Instead, Democrats need to deliver more of the president’s agenda — or else we will not be in the majority much longer.”

Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., a Warren ally, also said she didn’t think Democrats absolutely need to pass some kind of Build Back Better bill to preserve their House majority. But she said passing a bill that tackles pocketbook issues and the “existential threat” of climate change would appeal to voters. 

“It’s not that I think we will definitively lose in November if we don’t pass something else. I really still think we have a really good shot of keeping the House,” Jayapal said in an interview this month. “But I think it helps us to be able to have some bold action that raises wages and reduce costs. The core thing is people need to start feeling better about their own economic security.”

One topic Jayapal and Warren agree on is executive actions. The nearly 100-member Progressive Caucus recently presented Biden with a slate of dozens of proposals he could unilaterally act on, including lowering the cost of prescription drugs, ensuring more workers are eligible for overtime pay and canceling federal student loan debt. That would significantly aid Black and Hispanic borrowers, Warren said.

“With the stroke of a pen, the president could make massive strides to close gender and racial wealth gaps. And he can do more,” she wrote. “Decisive action on everything from lowering prescription drug prices to ensuring that more workers are eligible for overtime pay can be executed by the president alone, using the authority already given to him by existing laws, without rounding up 50 Senate votes."