"One more check is not enough": Progressives push Joe Biden to do more to help working families

"We have to make the most of the opportunity," Rep. Ro Khanna, former co-chair of Bernie's campaign, tells Salon

By Igor Derysh

Published January 29, 2021 6:00AM (EST)

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ro Khanna and Joe Biden (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ro Khanna and Joe Biden (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Progressive lawmakers and activists are encouraged by President Joe Biden's first week, and his surprisingly aggressive policy rollout. But they intend to keep the pressure on his administration to go bigger while Democrats have control of both chambers of Congress and the White House.

Many of Biden's former progressive primary foes have praised him for getting off to a running start but hope it's just the beginning. "I think we're headed in the right direction," Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said after last week's inauguration. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has praised some of Biden's administration picks and called his coronavirus relief plan a "very strong first installment." 

Biden's first major legislative proposal is a $1.9 trillion coronavirus rescue package that includes $1,400 direct payments to most Americans, an increase of the federal minimum wage to $15, and hundreds of billions to help unemployed people, state and local governments, schools, and small businesses.

Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., the former co-chair of Sanders' 2020 presidential campaign, told Salon the plan was a "strong start" and that the minimum wage increase would be "foundational to improving conditions for the working class." He noted that several aspects of the bill that have not gotten as much news coverage could dramatically slash child poverty and help working families.

Lawmakers are drafting a bill that would expand the child tax credit, which currently tops out at $2,000 per child at the end of the year, to $3,600 for children under 6 and $3,000 for older kids, The Washington Post reported last week. Unlike the current credit, these benefits would be delivered in monthly payments and would be fully refundable.

Biden's proposal would also expand the earned income tax credit and provide up to 14 weeks of paid sick and family leave for nearly all American workers.

The child tax credit expansion "would cut child poverty in half," Khanna said in an interview. "Paid family leave is something progressives have been fighting for for a long time. … So I am optimistic with the progressive priorities that have been included. Now we have to fight to make sure they're passed."

Khanna and other progressives, however, have bristled at Biden's proposal to send $1,400 checks on top of the $600 direct payments that Congress approved in December. The direct payments in Biden's plan are the same as those in the bill approved by the House last month before it was rejected by Senate Republicans.

"$2,000 means $2,000. $2,000 does not mean $1,400," Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told The Washington Post. She has also called for the enhanced $400 unemployment benefits in the bill to be retroactive.

A group of 54 progressive lawmakers on Thursday urged Biden to consider making the payments monthly, though they did not specify an amount.

"When that money runs out, families will once again struggle to pay for basic necessities," the letter said. "One more check is not enough."

Khanna, who signed the letter, says Biden should "do more" and send $2,000 checks monthly. But he said he doesn't expect that progressive lawmakers will torpedo the relief plan over the differences between the two sides.

"My sense is where the progressive fight will be is to get this passed, to get this through without compromising and losing parts of the agenda," he said.

Khanna has also joined with a growing number of Democrats in calling to scrap the filibuster in the Senate, which would allow the new Democratic majority — actually, a 50-50 tie, with Vice President Kamala Harris available as a tiebreaking vote — to pass legislation with a simple majority. Those calls may have hit a roadblock this week when moderate Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., vowed to preserve the filibuster. Despite Biden's optimism about building bipartisan support for legislation, many Republicans have already balked at large parts of his relief proposal.

"I appreciate Joe Biden trying, and he is doing the right thing by trying, but it has to be reciprocated," Khanna said.

In the absence of filibuster reform, Democrats have signaled that they intend to pass the relief bill and other legislation through the budget reconciliation process, which was used by Republicans to push through a massive tax cut in 2017 that overwhelmingly benefited the wealthy and corporations.

"We should do this [through] reconciliation, and if we have to amend the Byrd rule, we amend the Byrd rule," Khanna said, referring to a 1985 Senate rule that limits the types of provisions that can be included in reconciliation bills to only budgetary items, which could stand in the way of boosting the minimum wage.

Khanna predicted that Congress could pass a large infrastructure bill through the reconciliation process as well. He added that statehood for Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico could also be approved by simple majority vote.

"That is absolutely critical," he said. "Two things that we should ask ourselves every day: Are we getting our agenda to move to help working people? And are we getting our agenda to move to secure voting rights? That should be the prism through which we will get our policy."

Biden has also kicked off his presidency with a slew of executive orders largely aimed at rolling back Donald Trump's executive actions, like the travel ban targeting Muslim-majority countries and the ban on transgender people serving in the military.

"A big thing that he could do right away" is to sign an executive order canceling student debt, Khanna said. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., previously led calls for Biden to immediately cancel up to $50,000 in student debt per person. Biden has called on Congress to pass legislation to cancel up to $10,000 in debt per person. Some economists have pushed back on this particular policy, arguing that student debt forgiveness would overwhelmingly favor the top 20% of earners.

Progressive groups have also urged Biden to go further in tackling climate change. On Wednesday, Biden announced a series of executive actions aimed at addressing the "climate crisis" — a term never previously used by an American president — creating a commission to focus on creating a "civilian climate corps" modeled after a similar proposal in the Green New Deal, suspending new leases for oil and gas drilling on federal land, and elevating climate change to a national security priority. He has already canceled the Keystone XL pipeline and rejoined the Paris climate accord.

The Sunrise Movement, a climate-focused progressive group, said in a statement that the actions make clear that Biden is serious about delivering on his campaign promises, while calling on him to go further.

"Now is the moment to deliver transformative change for the American people, and our generation will not accept any excuses for delay or inaction on delivering historic legislation to build back better, creating millions of good jobs investing in clean energy, communities, and sustainable infrastructure," Varshini Prakash, the group's executive director, said in a statement.

The group has called for Biden to require 100% clean, renewable electricity by 2035, 100% zero-emission vehicles by 2030, and 100% clean buildings by 2025, among a host of other proposals. In a sign of synchronicity, General Motors announced Thursday it would phase out all production of gasoline-powered vehicles by the 2035 model year.

"The Sunrise Movement demands that President Biden follow through on the bold, progressive climate agenda he ran on through executive actions and by passing the first pillars of a Green New Deal," Ellen Sciales, a spokesperson for the group, said in a statement to Salon.

One area where Biden has received significant pushback from the left is in his selection of White House and Cabinet officials, a number of whom have corporate ties.

Prior to Biden's inauguration, many progressives were concerned about the number of Biden administration picks with links to corporate interests, while largely praising many of his choices. Former Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., who now heads the White House Office of Public Engagement, came under criticism for being a top recipient of donations from big oil and gas firms and said he would be a conduit for corporations in Biden's White House. Steve Ricchetti, who serves as a counselor to Biden, is a longtime corporate lobbyist.

"It's a mixed bag," said Jeff Hauser, director of the Revolving Door Project, a progressive group that scrutinizes administration appointments. While Biden ran as the most conservative option in the Democratic primary race, Hauser said, "There's no instance in which a Biden nominee is worse from a progressive standpoint than their Obama counterpart. And there are several instances in which they are noticeably better, and even some of the weaker Biden people are making outreach steps to progressives."

Khanna said that Richmond has been "extraordinary" in his outreach efforts to his former progressive House colleagues and that Ricchetti "has also outreached to many of us and has welcomed our comments and welcomed our feedback."

"The sense I've gotten with Biden's inner circle at the White House is that they have actually done a very good job of outreach to progressives on the Hill," he added. "Now, would Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders have had different picks in some of these positions? Of course. But Biden won the election, and he won the election on his platform. So given that, I think that the outreach to progressive wings of the party so far is sincere."

Hauser said he is still concerned about the influence of Ricchetti and Bruce Reed, Biden's deputy chief of staff, who has been criticized by progressives as a deficit hawk. Some Cabinet appointments, like Commerce Secretary-designate Gina Raimondo, the Rhode Island governor and former venture capitalist who has come under criticism for a perceived history of siding with corporations over working families, are downright "terrible," he said. But there are a lot of bright spots among Biden's picks, particularly in lesser-seen roles.

Biden staffed the Office of Management and Budget with people like Sharon Block, the acting head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, who come from the labor movement and back corporate regulations, Hauser said. His group is also "encouraged" by Biden's regulatory-minded picks at the Securities and Exchange Commission, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Labor Department, Department of the Interior, and some key positions at both the Treasury and Justice departments.

"Right now, there are a lot of very important wins happening, but I have some questions about the Department of Treasury and the Department of Justice," Hauser said. "Obviously, those are two extremely important departments."

Biden has fired several Trump appointees since taking office, but some progressives want him to go further. Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J., and others have called for Biden to fire the entire U.S. Postal Service Board of Governors over their "complicity" in Postmaster General Louis DeJoy's "sabotage" that led to a nationwide mail slowdown. Biden has no power to directly fire DeJoy, but the USPS board does.

Hauser said the process of firing the USPS board is complicated but noted that Biden could quickly fire IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig and holdover U.S. attorneys. He also called for Biden to fire FBI Director Christopher Wray, who he said "did nothing to prevent" the Capitol riot. Biden may wish to observe the formerly-existing norm, in which FBI directors were appointed to 10-year terms and seen as independent from politics. Those days may well be gone, Hauser suggested.

"If you survived a Trump administration loyalty purge, then you should be presumptively disloyal to the rule of law in this country, because Trump opposed the rule of law," Hauser said. "He acted upon that. You were neither fired nor quit, which means you just don't have a very active conscience."

Khanna said he is optimistic that Biden's rollout could pave the way for Congress to pass a large infrastructure package, strengthen union protections, address racial equity and pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.

Hauser said that Biden's first days in office, on the other hand, have made clear that progressives will have to fight to have significant influence over the administration.

"The Biden administration is largely run by political professionals who are constantly taking the temperature of the [Democratic] party and trying to be at the center of the party. To the extent to which activists succeed in shifting the party's views, be it on the $15 minimum wage or ethics in government or clean energy and the Green New Deal and those sorts of principles, they're going to influence the Biden administration. So I think people should definitely, objectively be encouraged that activism matters."

Khanna acknowledged that things will likely get "tougher" in two years when Democrats have to defend their narrow congressional majorities in a midterm election, which historically have not been kind to the incumbent president's party, while facing another round of Republican gerrymandering.

"I think anytime you have both chambers and the White House, you have to get as much of your agenda through as possible," he said. "I mean history shows this is not something that lasts that long. It's a very fortunate thing to have, and we have to make the most of the opportunity."

Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is a staff writer at Salon. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

Tips/Email: iderysh@salon.com Twitter: @IgorDerysh

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