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A group of 60 Sunrise youth activists gathered outside the White House calling for President Biden to pass infrastructure plan that addresses the climate crisis on June 4.
Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

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Progressive groups are “fed up” with Biden’s infrastructure playbook

Progressives want Biden to stop negotiating with Republicans and embrace budget reconciliation.

The honeymoon period between President Joe Biden and progressives is ending.

Progressive groups, who cheered Biden passing his $1.9 trillion Covid-19 stimulus bill through Congress with only Democratic support early on, are growing increasingly frustrated over Biden’s prolonged infrastructure negotiations with Senate Republicans.

A tentative deadline to strike a bipartisan deal by Memorial Day has come and gone. And on Friday, Biden once again spoke to lead Republican negotiator Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, with their conversation yielding no deal, according to Capito’s spokesperson. Progressives are frustrated by the pace, and by the White House’s choice to lower the price tag of their $2.25 trillion infrastructure package to try to get GOP support.

“We’re fed up and we want our voices to be heard,” said Evan Weber, the political director for the progressive climate group Sunrise Movement, which staged a protest blocking an entrance outside the White House on Friday afternoon — with dozens of 20-something protesters risking arrest. “Since the election, we’re starting to feel he’s ignoring the very people who put him in office and spending more time talking to the party of insurrectionists who don’t feel he’s president.”

Biden has now proposed shaving over $1 trillion off of his initial price tag on a physical infrastructure package, and proposing a 15 percent minimum tax on corporations in an attempt to placate GOP concerns about raising the corporate tax rate to 28 percent. Both are signs that the White House is serious about negotiating with Republicans to find common ground — a vow Biden made repeatedly throughout this campaign.

President Biden speaks to reporters on May 27. Many progressives are frustrated by Biden’s willingness to lower the overall cost of his infrastructure plan as he seeks a bipartisan deal with Republicans.
Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

“The President is engaged in good faith with both parties in Congress to deliver historic infrastructure investments that will drive economic growth, produce the clean technologies of the future and create good-paying jobs,” a White House official told Vox.

But to progressives, the events of the past few weeks are a sign that Republicans are trying to stall while Democrats have a unified majority in Congress, to hurt Democrats electorally in the 2022 midterms. And many are worried that Biden is prioritizing working with Republicans over another campaign promise to get bold things done for the country, including tackling the climate crisis and improving racial equity.

With Republicans signaling they’re unhappy with any new taxation proposals, progressives are still holding out a shred of hope that Democrats will ultimately pass an infrastructure bill via budget reconciliation — a process where they can use only Democratic votes in the Senate.

Progressives have an ear in Biden’s inner circle, especially with White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain, and they have had some early successes on policy and personnel. But getting Biden to promise something and getting him to actually deliver it are two different things — and it presents their greatest challenge in Biden’s tenure so far.

“Republicans are never going to agree to a deal,” Jamal Raad, co-founder of the progressive climate group Evergreen Action and a former top staffer to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, told Vox. “This is bad-faith negotiating only done to run out the clock on the Biden agenda.”

Climate groups forged an unlikely alliance with Biden. That could be fracturing.

On a sweltering June day, a group of about 60 Sunrise youth activists spread out in front of a White House entrance, blocking cars from going in and out.

Sitting on the hot blacktop pavement, the protesters sang, chanted, and shared stories about how they have been personally impacted by the climate crisis. They yelled into a megaphone, asking Biden to listen to them. There was one problem, though: The president actually happened to be out of town when the Sunrise blockade began.

And Biden, specifically, is whose ear progressives need the most. Unlike his swift legislating with the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, the president seems more comfortable taking his time on an infrastructure package — even if that makes lawmakers and left-wing groups uncomfortable.

“We’re using this action today to make our demands really clear,” Sunrise advocacy director Lauren Maunus told Vox. “If [Biden] does not respond to those demands, then we’ll be back at the end of June with a lot more people.”

Specifically, Sunrise was demanding a sit-down between Biden and their co-founder Varshini Prakash, who was a member of a climate task force created by the Biden and Bernie Sanders campaigns after Biden won the Democratic primary. The task forces were meant to unite the left and more center wings of the party and create Biden’s agenda in the process.

Prakash and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) were Sanders’s picks for Biden’s climate task force, which also included the president’s top climate officials: US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry and White House National Climate Adviser Gina McCarthy. Together, the group came up with an extremely ambitious climate plan, proposing to spend $2 trillion over four years to intertwine climate action with clean energy jobs, and drastically cut America’s greenhouse gas emissions.

“On climate, I think we actually made far more progress than I think I even anticipated,” Prakash told me in an interview last summer, after the task forces had wrapped up. “In large part, that was because many of the advisers on climate on Biden’s side were also equally amenable to ambitious action as people on the Bernie side.”

Biden married his infrastructure and jobs agenda to his climate agenda before he was inaugurated, noting the potential for job growth in the clean energy sector during the presidential campaign. “When I think about climate change, the word I think of is ‘jobs,’” Biden said in a July campaign speech announcing his $2 trillion plan.

A group of Sunrise climate activists block a vehicle entrance at the White House on June 4.
Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images
Climate groups once allied with then-presidential candidate Biden are growing frustrated with his prolonged infrastructure negotiations with Republicans.
Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Indeed, the reason progressive groups are getting anxious about infrastructure negotiations is that Biden’s infrastructure plan is also his climate plan; it would invest billions in new tax credits for clean energy, contains a clean electricity standard, and has $174 billion in funding to collectively speed up production of electric vehicles (EV), user rebates to help purchase them, and money to install 500,000 EV charging stations around the nation’s roadways. Democrats and climate groups are keenly aware that time is running out to take action; the climate prognosis for the planet is looking increasingly dire if countries keep emitting carbon at their current pace.

“When Miami is going underwater or California catches fire again, no one is going to be thinking, ‘Well, at least we got some Republican votes on that infrastructure package,’” said Jamie Henn, director of Fossil Free Media and a co-founder of the climate group “Biden’s legacy depends on his ability to go big on climate, not dither around the edges.”

The flip-side dynamic that progressive groups are frustrated by now is that infrastructure was always going to be the area the Biden administration saw as having the most potential for bipartisan compromise with Republicans. Infrastructure has for years been the subject on which Republicans and Democrats believed they could come to an agreement, because it traditionally encompasses boring but essential needs like roads and bridges.

The White House is obviously aware, as well, of numerous polls showing that voters favor bipartisanship in Congress, and want both parties to have input into a bill. A recent Morning Consult poll found 85 percent of voters saying it was very or somewhat important for legislation to have bipartisan support, and 62 percent saying they disagreed with the idea that politicians seeking bipartisan support was a waste of time.

The very fact that Biden added so much of his climate agenda into his infrastructure plan, plus a proposed $400 billion to bring down long-term care costs and raise wages for home health aides, who are largely women, including women of color, greatly expanded the definition of infrastructure. Progressive groups are now warning Biden that he can’t abandon the coalitions of youth voters and people of color who helped get him elected — and also deliver visible, noticeable results through a big bill.

“Going small on climate is a political trap because it means you sacrifice some of the most visible, popular parts of the clean energy transition: more charging stations, solar panels on rooftops, a Civilian Climate Corps that puts tens of thousands of people to work,” Henn said. “We know the GOP and fossil fuel companies are going to blame Democrats for the inevitable collapse of the fossil fuel economy. The best way to combat that narrative is to have a big, visible clean energy program.”

Negotiations between Biden and Republicans are reaching a critical point

Biden and a group of Senate Republicans led by Capito have been trading infrastructure counteroffers for weeks. Yet another talk between Biden and Capito on Friday afternoon saw no final deal; instead, they agreed to essentially check back in on Monday. But if talks flounder or yield a smaller bill, some Democrats on Capitol Hill are itching to go it alone.

“We move as quickly as we can on going big, we move as quickly as we can on negotiations,” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) told Vox recently. “At some point, if they won’t go where we believe the country needs to go and where the country seems to want to go, then we take off.”

The White House has already cut its initial $2.25 trillion infrastructure proposal by more than $1 trillion, and proposed significant changes to the taxation plan to pay for the infrastructure plan.

The GOP group, meanwhile, has added less than $100 billion in new spending to its initial proposal. The latest Republican plan totals $928 billion but is proposing just $257 billion in new spending, and repurposing the rest of the infrastructure money from unused American Rescue Plan funds. On Friday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden wants to see Republicans propose more money specifically for electric vehicles and rebuilding veterans hospitals.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) is the lead GOP negotiator on Biden’s infrastructure bill.
Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty Images

“There are areas where the president has priorities where he’d like to see more,” Psaki said. She said that even though Biden is continuing to talk to both Democrats and Republicans in Congress, “there are some realities of timelines” being driven by certain congressional committees. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is expected to mark up a five-year surface transportation infrastructure bill this coming week, which contains elements of Biden’s American Jobs Plan.

Still, progressive groups are telegraphing their disappointment, especially after the Senate GOP filibustered a bill for a commission to investigate the January 6 insurrection on Capitol Hill — a violent event led by supporters of President Donald Trump targeting lawmakers of both parties.

“It’s hard to argue Republicans are good faith negotiations when they couldn’t pass that.” Maurice Mitchell, national director of the Working Families Party, told Vox of the commission bill. “Democrats are attempting to govern, and Republicans have their eyes on 2022 and 2024 and are seeking to get back into power.”


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