Progressives are pushing for a bold Biden agenda. They might have to work around Congress to do it.

Progressives aren’t interested in giving President-elect Joe Biden a honeymoon.

After helping to mobilize election turnout of young people and left-leaning Democrats, progressive leaders want to hold the Biden administration to promises made on the campaign trail: addressing climate change, combatting the COVID-19 pandemic and offering student debt relief. 

“This isn’t 2015 anymore. This isn’t 2010 anymore. It’s not 2005 anymore,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democratic socialist from New York, said at a rally with progressives last week. “The movement got us here. You all got us a seat at the table.”

But as progressives lean into their policy demands, one roadblock remains: Who will control the Senate?

Two runoffs in Georgia will determine whether Republicans maintain control of the chamber when the new Congress is sworn in in January. If the Republican majority holds, not only will it be difficult for Democrats to pass legislation, it will likely mean the progressive wish list will be left on the backburner. 

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Jeff Hauser, executive director of the Revolving Door Project, a group that scrutinizes personnel in the executive branch, said progressives understand there will be substantial challenges in getting legislation passed and that “this is not a time for peace and prosperity.”

“The Senate picture is somewhere between bad and not good,” he said.

And even if Democrats do control the Senate, progressive legislation might still face an uphill battle, said Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University 

“I think it’s going to be a big management problem for (House Speaker Nancy) Pelosi, Baker said. “The big problem is managing the expectations of progressives.”

Baker noted passing legislation that makes both wings of the Democratic Party happy isn’t a given, pointing to the infighting between moderate and progressive Democrats days following the November election.

He specifically pointed to the “defund the police” movement, which calls on funding for police departments to be reallocated for other social services. Many establishment and centrist Democrats said that term, in addition to Democrats being linked to socialism, cost them House seats in the general election.

“The language of progressives becomes an issue to all Democrats,” Baker said. 

As a result, progressives are turning to processes where they believe they can make the most impact: The use of executive power and who Biden appointments to serve in his administration.

Adam Green, co-founder of Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said progressives have urged Biden specifically to limit the appointments of people who have a lobbying or corporate background. Green said if progressive legislation can’t get passed through Congress, and Biden has to use executive power instead, former lobbyists from key industries could hinder that progress.

“If our desire is that (Biden) use executive power to take on Big Pharma but there is a pharma lobbyist in charge of policies, that will likely get slow walked or vetoed from within,” Green told USA TODAY.  “If we want to create clean energy jobs but former Big Oil lobbyists are now in charge of the levers of power, then that will get slow walked. So there’s a direct correlation between urging him to advance what he can do with executive power and urging him to not appoint corporate lobbyists who are not fully aligned with his campaign promises.”

Progressive activists have been vocal about appointments they believe will hinder movement in key policies areas. 

From left, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass. speak at a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, July 15, 2019.

Justice Democrats, along with Social Security Works and Data for Progress, launched a campaign petitioning against Bruce Reed, Biden’s former chief of staff, from joining the administration. The petition has the support of not only progressive activists, but key progressive lawmakers like Reps. Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and newly elected Reps. Cori Bush and Jamaal Bowman.

The Sunrise Movement, an organization focused on climate change that spurred out of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign, criticized Biden’s appointment earlier this month of Rep. Cedric Richmond as a senior adviser to the president and director of the White House Office of Public Engagement.

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The group called Richmond’s appointment a “betrayal,” claiming that the congressman “cozied up to Big Oil and Gas” more than nearly any other Democrat during his time on Capitol Hill. Richmond, who represents a Louisiana district that spans from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, was national co-chairman of Biden’s campaign

Other groups, like Justice Democrats, have hit Biden for some appointments that they say are “corporate friendly,” including Steve Ricchetti being named as counselor to the president. Ricchetti is a former lobbyist, and his firm Richetti Inc. has represented the American Hospital Association and the Health Insurance Association of America, drugmakers such as Eli Lilly, Novartis, Pfizer and Sanofi-Aventis, and communications firms such as AT&T and Nextel. 

“If Joe Biden continues making corporate-friendly appointments to his White House, he will risk quickly fracturing the hard-earned goodwill his team built with progressives to defeat Donald Trump,” Justice Democrats executive director Alexandra Rojas said in a statementearlier this month. 

Two weeks ago more than 40 activist groups released a list of 400 progressive policy experts they want Biden to consider for positions in his administration. This week, five progressive organizations led by Demand Progress and the Revolving Door Project launched a website for a campaign called “No Corporate Cabinet,” which aims to keep corporate insiders out of the Biden administration.

In similar messaging, a rally of activists and some members of congress, including Ocasio-Cortez, called on Biden to reject appointing people who have corporate ties and called for bold action on the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change.

“Let’s cut to the chase,” Anthony Karefa Rogers-Wright, policy coordinator for Climate Justice Alliance said at the rally. “Marginalized Black, brown, and Indigenous folk came out to vote, which is the only reason there will even be a Biden administration. The President-elect must center these communities and dismantle the root causes of interlinked crises including COVID and climate change: white supremacy, patriarchy, and colonization.”

Biden is seemingly listening to some of the concerns.

The president-elect nominated former Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen as his Treasury secretary, a move that will likely make both progressives and moderates happy. Yellen, who will be the first woman to lead the department, headed the Fed from 2014 to 2018.

Biden also appointed John Kerry as special presidential envoy for climate, which Varshini Prakash, co-founder and executive director of Sunrise Movement, said in a statement was “an encouraging sign of President-Elect Biden’s commitment to addressing the climate crisis.” Prakash, however, also noted that progressives want to see a domestic counterpart to Kerry’s position.

But Biden is also tempering progressives’ expectations. He tamped down the possibility of nominating Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders to Cabinet positions last week, saying “we already have significant representation among progressives in our administration.”

He added that “taking someone out of the Senate, taking someone out of the House, particularly a person of consequence, is a really difficult decision that would have to be made.”

“I have a very ambitious, very progressive agenda, and it’s going to take really strong leaders in the House and Senate to get it done,” Biden said.

Sanders is vying to be Biden’s Labor Secretary, while some progressives also had hoped Biden would choose Warren as Treasury secretary.

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Some progressives believe the greatest progress could be made through Biden’s executive power and federal laws already in place.

Hauser, of the Revolving Door Project, said he hopes Biden “does the most that he can with the tools that he has” to get progressive policies enacted. For example, he noted that a Biden Administration can change the poverty line to an income like $30,000, which would increase access to Medicare.

But Baker, the professor, noted that Biden will need to “temper expectations” from the progressive wing of the party. He noted that while Biden can “give it his best shot,” progressive policies will likely have to be pushed through in other legislative packages rather than their own bills. 

“You can’t do it wholesale, you have to do it retail,” Baker said.

While progressives are aware of the challenges that are facing them in the upcoming administration, they just want Biden to be fully prepared with his options that could help him pass policies that he promised on the campaign trail, especially if there is a Republican-controlled Senate. 

“We don’t want to see the government sputter into worthlessness because of Mitch McConnell,” Hauser said.

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