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Progressives See Coronavirus Crisis As A Chance To Make Big, Lasting Policy Changes

Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut is one of the progressive Democrats pushing to expand some of the safety net programs created since the coronavirus pandemic.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut is one of the progressive Democrats pushing to expand some of the safety net programs created since the coronavirus pandemic.

Democrats said the $3 trillion coronavirus aid bill that was approved last week in the House of Representatives is meant to meet the needs of everyday Americans. Republicans dismissed that same bill as a partisan attempt to enact a longstanding wish list of Democratic policy priorities.

Progressive Democrats don't exactly dispute that.

"Over 80% of the bill we have already passed in one way, shape or form," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told reporters last week. "So, now we're putting our offer on the table. We're open to negotiation."

The bill that passed the House on Friday is full of proposals Democrats on the left have been pitching for years — from a more generous allowance for food stamps to changes in the way people qualify for federal benefits. Many progressives see the economic crisis caused by the coronavirus and the public health response as proof that more expansive social policies are needed now, and in the future, to help people survive in times of crisis.

"The coronavirus pandemic has exposed gaping holes in our social safety net and has brought into stark relief issues that we knew were there," said Rep. Katherine Clark, D-Mass., the House Democratic Caucus vice chair. "Now we can see their devastating impacts so clearly."

Among the policies Clark supported in the House bill is a provision to provide funding for child care providers. She said women have always borne the brunt of the effects when schools and day care centers are closed. The issue is playing out on an enormous scale with the coronavirus. Clark and other Democrats proposed $50 billion in immediate child care funding. They also advocated for another $50 billion to fund long-term structural change.

Republicans, such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., call that logic gross politics.

"Democrats cannot stop salivating, salivating over the possibilities for partisan gain," McConnell said last week on the Senate floor. "Eighty-thousand Americans have died. More than 20 million have lost their jobs. I call that a crisis. They call it leverage."

Progressive Democrats said they are simply advocating for programs that are gaining public support in the crisis.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., said until the coronavirus hit, Republicans generally didn't support any expansion of domestic spending intended to help people in a crisis. Now there is a crisis, and Democrats want to use this moment to remake the system.

"These folks have never wanted to go down this road and protect what was a social safety net that we've had in the past and a new social safety net for people in today's world," DeLauro said in an interview. "I've been fighting for these issues for a very, very long time, OK. I'm trying to deal with the pandemic."

Democrats have a running list of policies they said are helping now during the coronavirus crisis and could be used to support people during any future economic dip.

Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, said he wants to tie the expanded benefits that passed in the CARES Act to the unemployment rate going forward. Such a proposal would allow the benefits to ebb and flow to meet the economy.

Wyden said the existing system hasn't worked for a long time. Many states provide benefits below the minimum wage, and the system does not regularly support people who are paid contractors or work in the so-called gig economy.

"The unemployment system, which was invented in the 1930s, is still in kind of a time warp," Wyden said. "Nobody ever heard of a gig worker back in the 1930s."

Many progressives see the coronavirus response as a chance to prove that policies they support can work and should be made permanent.

Some of these benefits, such as extra unemployment assistance, already got big bipartisan support and will be harder to take away later.

Not all Democrats necessarily agree.

Moderates, such as Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., are not eager to use the coronavirus to advocate for long-term spending increases. Murphy, who is a co-chair of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition, said any policies need to be reevaluated over time.

"I agree that in a crisis, you really highlight the deficiencies in our society," Murphy said in an interview. "But I also believe that the best approach to legislating in a divided Congress is to do what is possible and that means it has to be able to make it through a divided Congress and signed by a Republican president. Only things that become law can actually help the people that we're trying to assist."

Several moderate Democrats, including Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., voted against the $3 trillion House bill over similar concerns.

"Unfortunately, many members of Congress — including some in my own party — have decided to use this package as an opportunity to make political statements and propose a bill that goes far beyond pandemic relief and has no chance at becoming law," Spanberger said in a statement.

"We must come together to build a targeted, timely relief package that avoids partisan posturing and instead prioritizes combating our nationwide public health emergency, addressing catastrophic unemployment rates, and protecting the security of the next generation."

Murphy said there are clear bipartisan options out there. She pointed to funding for state and local governments that can bring the two parties together and a proposal to extend and expand a tax credit for businesses that keep employees on the payroll during the crisis.

Those bipartisan proposals may succeed in the near-term, but progressives are also looking to see how their policies can be sustained well into the future. Democrats are hoping to take control of the Senate and the White House in November, which would make it easier to build on temporary programs and permanently remake the system.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.