WASHINGTON ― As House Democrats work to pass a nearly $1 trillion package of spending bills, progressives may not be losing, but they’re certainly not winning.
Lawmakers left town Thursday afternoon after a late-night session on Wednesday and dozens of votes on amendments to the spending bill, which contains the vast majority of the money Congress appropriates. The measure combines appropriations for the departments of Defense, Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, Energy, and State Department ― and it represents more than $900 billion of overall spending capped at nearly $1.3 trillion.
At the outset of the appropriations season, progressives said they wanted parity between how much the government spends on defense versus everything else (known on Capitol Hill as “non-defense discretionary”).
Those liberal lawmakers allowed Democratic leadership to “deem” budget numbers that they insisted wouldn’t be used for appropriations bills. And then, as appropriators began predictably writing the spending bills to the exact levels progressives didn’t like, progressive leaders still said they had “several pressure points.”
So as Democrats pass this appropriations bill with $645 billion for defense ― and another $76 billion for “overseas” military operations that the Pentagon has used in the past as a slush fund ― you’d think progressives may balk at a non-defense discretionary number far short of what the military will be getting.
But no. The most liberal voices in Congress are largely supportive of the bill, even as they don’t get what they want.
“We’re disappointed for sure,” Congressional Progressive Caucus Co-Chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) told HuffPost this week. But she pointed to a number of other “wins” liberals had secured in exchange for their votes.
She and other progressives HuffPost talked to this week said Democratic leadership had already given liberals some wins ― like waiving pay-as-you-go rules when House Democrats passed the DREAM Act last week, stripping a controversial provision of an IRS bill blocking the government from making its own free version of TurboTax, and holding “Medicare for All” hearings.
Most of those concessions, however, aren’t concessions at all. Progressives were already getting Medicare for All hearings. The pay-go requirements had to be waived for Democrats to pass the DREAM Act as it was written. And the TurboTax provision was stripped after the bill stalled in the Senate.
The one real concession progressives may have gotten is the one they’ve yet to fully secure: backpay for federal contractors.
There were as many as 1.2 million federal contractors who got stiffed during the one-month government shutdown that began at the end of last year. Congress routinely pays back federal workers for wages they miss during shutdowns. But lawmakers have never done the same for the even more numerous employees of companies with government contracts, who lose their pay for the same reason.
Included in the text of the appropriations bill on the floor is a provision that would direct federal agencies to pay companies back for the missing wages of their lower-paid employees. The provision is based on a bill that Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.) introduced earlier this year with universal Democratic support plus the backing of two Senate Republicans.
But it’s not clear the provision can survive the process, since Smith would probably need more than two GOP senators to protect it, and several Republicans have previously spoken against it.
“I’m hopeful that they’ll do the right thing and that we’ll be able to get it through,” Smith told HuffPost. “There’s a lot of trading and jockeying back and forth. And there’s a lot of water that has to pass under the bridge before we know exactly how it works out.”
While the backpay for contractors would certainly be a real win for progressives, there’s doubt it’ll survive in the end. Still, progressives argue they can only vote on what’s in front of them, and they feel that, on the whole, they’ve won in a number of ways.
Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), who is the other co-chair of the Progressive Caucus, told HuffPost that the group would be putting out a full list of concessions they won next week.
“We understand the compromise process,” Pocan said. “You want to try to start your best, that’s what we were trying to do on that issue. But we’ve been able to negotiate a number of other things.”
Democrats are passing this appropriations package in the House without the help of Republicans, meaning leaders can only lose about 20 Democrats and still pass the bill. Leadership has argued that passing a spending bill without GOP help ― one that doesn’t include funding for President Donald Trump’s border wall and has a number of restrictions on how he can spend money ― will strengthen the hand of Democrats when they negotiate a final deal with Senate Republicans.
But Democrats are starting the process by already conceding that defense and non-defense should not get an equal amount of money. And Republicans are already pushing for a defense budget closer to $750 billion, rather than the $720 billion Democrats are advancing.
Jayapal noted she has concerns that Democrats would agree to even more defense spending to win over Republicans.
“They have assured us that we are not going to go up,” Jayapal said. “I’m gonna believe that when we get done.”
In other legislative fights, the CPC has left it to outside progressive activists to make the kind of fuss they do not want to make on their own.
Alex Lawson, executive director of Social Security Works, which has been active in efforts to secure a stronger prescription drug price bill, was relatively muted in his criticism.
“Obviously there should be parity between defense and non-defense spending,” he said. Yet he held out hope that CPC leaders would condition their support for the spending bill on the promise of a vote on Connecticut Rep. John Larson’s Social Security 2100 Act. (Larson’s bill, which would increase Social Security benefits and close the program’s funding gap by lifting the cap on taxable income for the program and other revenue hikes, has the support of over 200 members of Congress. But there is still no indication that leadership plans to put it up for a vote.)
The problem for progressives is that, if Democrats strike a deal with Republicans, there will likely be more than enough votes from the GOP to replace any lost progressive votes for the final product.
No massive appropriations bill is likely to get the votes of the most conservative Republicans. And the most liberal members of Congress may balk at how much more money defense is getting over non-defense and vote no. But between Democrats and Republicans, there would still be plenty of votes for a spending package that meets in the middle.
That’s why it was imperative for progressives to win as much as possible on this package, which will only have Democratic votes.
It’s a situation conservatives often found themselves in when Republicans controlled the House. They tried to win as much as possible on the budget, knowing that Democrats wouldn’t be voting for that document and that the conservatives themselves probably wouldn’t vote for the final appropriations product, preferring a government shutdown to supporting more spending.
For progressives, that’s a tougher bluff; they want nothing to do with a shutdown.
Liberals tried to split the difference on the budget, which set the new spending caps. They didn’t allow leadership to adopt a full budget, but they did go along with Democrats “deeming” those numbers they didn’t like, thinking they would get another bite at the apple when these appropriations bills came along. And now that the legislation is here, they have to look at what they got and ask whether it’s enough.
It’s just one of the ways liberals are getting rolled by Democratic leaders. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has stood in the way of opening an impeachment inquiry, even as she insists the president has committed crimes. Pelosi and her staff have criticized lefty ideas like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. And now she’s going along with a budget that gives significantly more to defense than to the domestic spending priorities that liberals prefer.
When HuffPost asked another progressive leader, Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), whether liberals had gotten enough for their votes, he said he was still undecided on the final bill, but he defended the package.
“We got some concessions on [the National Institutes of Health], we’ve gotten more funding,” Khanna said, admitting that the bill was “not ideal, but I do think we are making progress.”
Khanna also pointed to promises from Democratic leaders that they wouldn’t touch Medicare or Social Security ― which Democrats already weren’t going to touch ― and he noted his biggest issue was reaching parity between defense and non-defense spending. But he also suggested progressives only had a limited hand to play, given that they don’t want to shut down government.
“It’s a challenge,” Khanna said. “We’re pushing for a perspective, and we don’t want to be obstructionist.”