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Progressives are worried Democrats may already be blowing the midterms

March 5, 2021, 4:30 PM UTC

Is it too soon to be worrying about the midterms? Not for progressives, some of whom believe President Joe Biden and Democratic leadership are already setting themselves up for defeat in 2022 by making compromises on the latest COVID relief package.

On Wednesday, Biden agreed to narrow the group of people who would be eligible to receive $1,400 stimulus payments, cutting off individuals earning more than $80,000 and couples earning $160,000 in the Senate’s version of the legislation. The package that the House passed last month capped incomes at $100,000 and $200,000 respectively. Biden’s decision to lower the threshold means roughly 12 million adults and 5 million children would be disqualified from receiving the stimulus checks, many of the same people who would have received checks under former President Donald Trump’s administration. 

Biden’s concessions—ostensibly intended to appease more conservative members of the party—could easily come back to haunt him, progressive organizers say.

“Biden has hopped onto the wrong track,” said Norman Solomon, the executive director of RootsAction, a progressive grass-roots organization. “If he continues on the wrong track, he’s going to damage the same base he’s going to be pleading with next year to prevent a Republican takeover of Congress.”

Solomon says that his concern, far from being an idle threat, is based in historical precedent: After advocating economic stimulus for everyday Americans on the campaign trail, Bill Clinton ditched the stimulus package in favor of Wall Street–friendly policies as President. The 1994 midterms became known as the “Republican Revolution,” resulting in Republicans sweeping the House and Senate. After reneging on campaign promises to strengthen labor unions and adopt other progressive policies, President Barack Obama saw his party lose 63 seats in the House and six in the Senate in 2010, only adding to those losses in 2014.

“Financial distress has cascading effects in people’s lives,” Solomon said. “The deeper they go in the financial hole, the more desperate they become and the more angry they get. The fundamental question will revolve around: What have you done for us?”

Others—arguing that this is the more realistic stance—have insisted that it’s too soon to speak so critically of the President’s leadership and have asked skeptics to give him a chance. But their opponents say there’s no time to wait and see: Getting assistance to the American people is urgent, and it will make a memorable impression if some are left behind by the latest version of the legislation.

“I definitely believe in giving people chances—and we are giving Biden a chance,” said Rahna Epting, the executive director of the progressive public policy advocacy group MoveOn. “But that doesn’t mean watching as Democrats water down policies they should be delivering on. We shouldn’t be delivering less than what Trump delivered—that’s a political miscalculation in my opinion.”

It’s not just the latest income eligibility restrictions that have progressive groups worried about Democrats’ prospects in the midterms. Many see the Biden administration making the same mistakes on issues like student-loan forgiveness and the minimum wage hike, popular policies they have refused to embrace largely because of arcane procedural rules. Biden has said that he doesn’t believe he has the authority to use executive action to forgive student debt, even though some Democratic leaders say there was nothing standing in his way of canceling $50,000 of debt on his first day in office. The administration also capitulated to the Senate parliamentarian after she said Democrats could not include a $15 minimum wage proposal in their COVID relief package, which is going through the budget reconciliation process. According to Senate rules, Vice President Kamala Harris could have overruled the decision. 

“We should not have to twist ourselves into pretzels to pass legislation—the fact that we’re using reconciliation is because of the filibuster,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal told The Cut on Wednesday. “…And if it doesn’t change under Majority Leader Schumer and with a President Biden, then we’re going to have a real problem in two years when we try to convince voters that they should give us a shot again.”

But it’s not just members of the progressive wing who are concerned about making too many concessions too soon. On Thursday, Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.) spoke out against imposing additional means tests—government determinations of who is fit to qualify for assistance based on what some call arbitrary measures—on the COVID relief bill. “We’ve been listening to this debate for a month. Enough,” she wrote on Twitter. “While you’re quibbling over who you want to exclude, people are suffering. SEND THE CHECKS.”

The Senate is nearing a vote on the relief package as it currently stands, meaning that the most likely outcome is that it passes with the new income eligibility limits.  

“Morally, people will suffer,” Solomon said of the consequences of the legislation remaining as is. “Politically, the Democratic Party will suffer.”