WASHINGTON — House Democrats ended their summer break Monday, amid finger-pointing and rising tensions, to try to pave the legislative way for the most ambitious expansion of the nation’s social safety net in a half-century.
But the divisions emerging over an arcane budget measure needed to shield a $3.5 trillion social policy bill from a filibuster are exposing deep strains in the Democratic Party over ideology, generational divides and the fruits of power and incumbency.
The stalemate by now is well known: Nine moderate or conservative Democrats have rebelled against their party’s leaders and say they will block consideration of the budget blueprint necessary to allow the social policy measure championed by the party’s left flank to pass this autumn with only Democratic backing unless the House immediately votes on the Senate-passed bipartisan infrastructure bill. A broader coalition of 19 Blue Dog Democrats also wants the infrastructure vote to come as soon as possible.
The clamor for a quick victory on infrastructure, both for congressional Democrats and President Joe Biden, has only grown louder amid the anguish over Afghanistan. Democratic leaders were hoping to pass a rule Monday night for debating the budget measure, the infrastructure bill and an unrelated voting rights bill, with final votes scheduled for Tuesday.
“Our country desperately needs this direct reinvestment in our crumbling infrastructure. We also desperately need to prove our dysfunctional government can actually work,” said Rep. Ed Case of Hawaii, one of the nine Democrats at odds with the party’s leaders.
But Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and dozens of progressive Democrats are equally adamant that the infrastructure vote will happen only after the Senate approves an ambitious bill that includes universal preschool, two years of free community college, paid family leave, federal support for child care and elder care, an expansion of Medicare, and a broad effort to convert the fossil fuel economy to one based on renewable, clean energy.
The left-right divide, however, oversimplifies the swirling undercurrents that are roiling the Democratic Party.
Some of the same Democrats confronting their leaders on the budget resolution have allied with them to fight off challenges from the insurgent Democratic left in the coming primary season. Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., a leader of the recalcitrant nine, founded the Team Blue political action committee with Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., the chair of the House Democratic Caucus, and Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala., to defend incumbent Democrats against primary opponents.
Moderates have also allied with Shield PAC, founded by Democrats ousted in November from Republican-leaning districts, to push back on efforts to tar all Democrats with the slogans of the left. Some have backed a new pro-Israel group, Democratic Majority for Israel, determined to thwart the party’s emerging Palestinian rights movement — and defeat left-wing candidates who they say have crossed an unacceptable political line on the Jewish state.
This past Friday, yet another centrist group, No Labels, began airing an advertisement backing Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, one of the nine holdouts on the budget who is being challenged by a young liberal, Jessica Cisneros, in the upcoming primary season. The ad extols him for “fighting for the Biden agenda,” though arguably he is now trying to hold much of it up.
The idea, moderates say, is to inoculate the party from slogans like “Defund the Police” that were effectively used against swing-district Democrats in November and stop progressive gains before divisions in the Democratic Party grow as deep as they have been in the Republican Party. The issue is more about tone and cooperation than ideology, said Mark Mellman, a longtime Democratic strategist and pollster, who helped found the Democratic Majority for Israel and its PAC.
“There’s nothing revolutionary about ‘Medicare for All,’ moving to a clean energy economy, a $15 minimum wage,” he said. “There’s a lot of consistency around the general direction of policy. But the rhetoric is different.”
The efforts have left liberals feeling aggrieved and worried that the Democratic establishment is actually hurting the party — by sapping the vital energy of younger voters. Young liberals like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman not only defeated Democratic stalwarts to win their seats in New York but also have captured the imagination of the next generation, said Waleed Shahid, a spokesperson and strategist for Justice Democrats, which promotes insurgent progressive candidates.
“The future of the party looks a lot more like AOC than Joe Biden,” he said.
The establishment’s efforts are showing results. One of the left’s political heroes, Nina Turner, lost a House special election primary in Cleveland this month after Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, the most senior African American in Congress, and Mellman’s group swooped in to prop up a little-known but more conciliatory candidate, Shontel Brown. In New Orleans, the favored progressive candidate in the race to replace Rep. Cedric Richmond, who joined the Biden White House, also lost.
Liberals say the moderates, not the progressives, are now the ones standing in the way of Biden’s agenda, by provoking the House’s stalemate and threatening the social policy bill in the Senate.
“This is a shared priority,” said Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn.
Far from folding before an expanding incumbent-protection apparatus, which already included the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Congressional Black Caucus’ PAC, liberal insurgents are fielding what may become the broadest group of primary challengers in years.
“I’m disappointed that party leadership sees this as a way to draw a wedge where there doesn’t need to be one,” said Kina Collins, 30, a gun control activist and community organizer running against Rep. Danny Davis, who was elected nearly 25 years ago in a district that includes some of the richest and poorest neighborhoods of Chicago. “I haven’t reached out to the CBC or the DCCC, but if they get involved, it speaks volumes about where they want us to be going as a party.”
Other progressives are running primary campaigns against Reps. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y.; John Yarmuth, D-Ky.; Jim Cooper, D-Tenn.; and Cuellar, hoping to follow the paths of Ocasio-Cortez and Bowman as well as Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Marie Newman and Cori Bush, all of whom unseated incumbent Democrats from the left in the past two election cycles.
“I wouldn’t say it’s generational; Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren — there are older members of Congress who are superpowerful, inspiring and making deep, impactful change,” said Rana Abdelhamid, 28, who is challenging Maloney in her district of East Side Manhattan and Queens. “It’s about communities who have not been represented, who have been overlooked, with an understanding that we deserve better.”
Democratic leaders say the key to resolving the disputes is uniting around the president’s agenda.
“A lot of us need to hold hands. We need to be protecting each other and march together,” Clyburn told the House Democratic Caucus last week on a conference call.
Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., the majority leader, struck a similar theme.
“Remember the psychology of consensus,” he said. “We are in this together, we have the leader of our party, and we are pursuing the attainment of that agenda.”
While Biden is identified, at least in temperament, with the moderate, establishment wing of his party, the agenda he ran on — forged in part by policy panels assembled by the Biden campaign and his rival, Sanders, I-Vt. — is closer to the left, much of which would be advanced by the $3.5 trillion budget plan expected to receive a vote Tuesday.
That has given liberals some confidence. “The eviction moratorium, the extension of the student debt moratorium — when we say that this has to happen, then it does happen,” said Omar, the chief vote counter of the House Progressive Caucus.
The establishment may have warmed to the left’s agenda, but it is bent on bringing progressive personalities to heel. Matt Bennett, an executive vice president at Third Way, said Democrats could not function with the kinds of divisions that are gnawing away at rival Republicans. From the outside, Republicans might appear to have a cohesive party, and it can still win elections. Inside, the fractures are so deep, the party no longer has a unified ideology or message, its members routinely take down their leaders, and it is in nearly constant turmoil.
“The Tea Party weakened the foundations of the Republican Party; then Trump sawed off the central tent pole, and it collapsed,” Bennett said.
Mellman’s PAC infuriated progressives by spending nearly $1 million on television ads to savage Turner, whom they saw as hostile to Israel. (She firmly denied the accusation, saying, “I believe in freedom and justice for my sister and brothers and family and friends in Israel, and also freedom and justice for my sisters and brothers, family and friends of Palestinian descent.”)
Liberals fumed that some of that money came from Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, who was friendly with former President Donald Trump.
“By allying with groups funded largely by GOP donors and obstructionists like Josh Gottheimer, Democratic leaders are bolstering people who are blocking the Biden agenda, simply to stop more nurses and principals and bartenders from entering Congress,” Shahid said.
But progressives are not exactly outgunned. Turner and her allies outspent the Democratic establishment by around $1.6 million. Yet Turner, an outspoken former chair of Sanders’ presidential campaign, lost by 6 percentage points.
“No question there is an energy around some of these candidates,” Mellman said. “On the other hand, people thought that energy was there for Nina Turner, and when all was said and done, it wasn’t there.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.