On March 4, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren was in the middle of ending her 14-month presidential bid, following a disappointing finish in key states on Super Tuesday. She would officially drop out the next day.
Still, Warren found time to fire off a letter to the Department of Homeland Security, asking it to suspend immigration enforcement actions at hospitals and other medical facilities during the coronavirus outbreak.
The senator has barely let up since.
Even before she left the presidential race, Warren had worked to shape seemingly every element of the federal government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and the steep recession that is almost certainly coming with it. Her proposal to bar companies who receive bailout funds from stock buybacks has been endorsed by even conservative Republicans, and she worked with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) to make canceling student debt part of the Democratic Party’s proposed response to the crisis.
She’s peppered seemingly every branch of President Donald Trump’s administration with letters demanding details on how they’re responding, sending more than 25 letters to different branches and agencies, covering everyone from the Federal Communications Commission to the National Institutes of Health to Vice President Mike Pence’s office.
“This is not my first rodeo,” Warren said on a conference call hosted by progressive health care activist Ady Barkan on Wednesday night, referring to her star-making role as a watchdog during the 2008-2009 financial crisis. “We need a big enough stimulus package to support the economy. If we go small, giant corporations will recover but working families won’t.”
As Warren returns to a legislative minority, and to being just one of 100 senators ― albeit one with a bigger platform than most ― her proposals have a long way to go to collecting the 60 Senate votes and House majority necessary to become law, and her letters to Trump’s underlings in the administration might not cause giant policy shifts. But as the two parties battle over how best to respond to the crisis, Warren’s role in the debate shows she’s continuing to function as the Democratic Party’s ideas factory even after her presidential campaign sputtered.
To Warren allies, it makes perfect sense that the second-term senator would grieve the end of her campaign by making policy. Warren’s original rise to political prominence was a result of the similarly complicated and all-encompassing 2008 financial crisis, and Warren released plans to deal with both a pandemic and a financial collapse during her 2020 run for the presidency.
“Of course she’s disappointed, of course she’s sad. But her life’s work isn’t to become president; it’s to solve problems,” said Adam Jentleson, a Democratic strategist who supported Warren’s presidential bid and was a top aide to former Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid. “She’d rather be doing this than anything else.”
Warren’s biggest influence so far has come from pushing for restrictions on industries that receive bailouts: On Tuesday, she rolled out a list of eight conditions she argued should be placed on any company that receives government funds to help stay afloat during the pandemic, including a permanent ban on stock buybacks, a three-year ban on dividends or executive bonuses and setting aside board seats for employee-elected representatives.
Two days later, Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) staked out a similar position. And in the days since, Trump and some Republican senators have indicated they would back restrictions on stock buybacks.
“To earn Democratic support in the Congress, any economic stimulus proposal must include new, strong and strict provisions that prioritize and protect workers, such as banning the recipient companies from buying back stock, rewarding executives, and laying off workers,” Schumer and Pelosi said in a joint statement.
Warren’s also helped shape Senate Democrats’ legislative response. On Thursday morning, Schumer ― along with Warren and Democratic Sens. Patty Murray of Washington and Sherrod Brown of Ohio ― unveiled a plan to cancel student loan payments for the duration of the coronavirus crisis and to cancel at least $10,000 for every student loan borrower.
And on Saturday, Schumer, Warren and Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden (D) announced a proposal to increase Social Security benefits by $200 a month for all recipients over the next two years.
On Sunday, former Vice President Joe Biden – who is still seeking Warren’s endorsement for his presidential bid – announced he was supporting both the Social Security and student debt cancellation proposals. It was the first time Biden backed any form of mass erasure of student debt. (He had previously supported student loan forgiveness for students who entered public service, as well as income-based repayment plans.)
Warren has lobbied for all of these positions behind the scenes, her aides said, holding two calls to push Schumer on student loan debt cancellation and expanding Social Security, and four calls with Wyden ― the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee ― on Social Security. Warren met with the pair before a vote on the first phase of the coronavirus relief plan on Wednesday.
If there’s one element of the debate where Warren hasn’t weighed in, it’s crafting Democratic plans to give cash directly to consumers – Brown, along with New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, crafted Senate Democrats’ proposal. Warren aides said it’s because her focus remains on structural reforms to the economy.
Warren has also held phone calls with at least eight members of the House’s Congressional Progressive Caucus, aiming to work her provisions into that chamber’s eventual stimulus plan.
And she’s continued to bombard the Trump administration with requests. On Friday alone, she asked the FCC for details on how they were helping low-income students access the internet while schools were closed, and pushed the Trump administration to decrease the number of people in prisons and jails to slow the pandemic’s spread.
“If anyone is going to listen to anybody on how to get out of this, it’s going to be Elizabeth Warren,” said Mary Anne Marsh, a Boston-based Democratic strategist.
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