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Divided Democratic Party Under Biden Requires Compromise, Says Progressive Rep. Khanna

Rep. Ro Khanna, a progressive Democrat from California, says he plans to work with moderates in his party on priorities like "Medicare for All" and aggressive climate change policies.
Andrew Harnik
Rep. Ro Khanna, a progressive Democrat from California, says he plans to work with moderates in his party on priorities like "Medicare for All" and aggressive climate change policies.

When Joe Biden won the Democratic primary months ago, many progressives got in line behind him with a common goal: beat President Trump.

Now that President-elect Biden, a moderate Democrat, has signaled that he will govern as such, Rep. Ro Khanna, a progressive Democrat from California, sees room for their party to compromise.

"Joe Biden showed how to find common ground, as did Bernie Sanders — that we can speak about budgeting our values," Khanna, vice chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said in an interview with NPR's Morning Edition on Thursday.

There has been debate recently within the Democratic Party over whether progressive positions cost Democrats seats in the House. Rep. Conor Lamb, D-Pa., told The New York Times recentlythat his constituents "are extremely frustrated by the message of defunding the police and banning fracking."

Khanna says that while Biden did not voice support for such actions, progressive voices helped galvanize a critical base to help win him the presidency.

"My view is that the Black Lives Matter movement was very, very helpful," he said. "They helped organize record turnouts in places like Milwaukee and Atlanta and Philadelphia and Detroit. And the language of activism helped the party, but it doesn't have to be the language that the party itself adopts."

Still, Khanna is adamant that he and the party's progressive wing will work with the incoming Biden administration to push for their top concerns, including "a bold clean energy plan" and "Medicare for All."

Interview Highlights

Is it possible that the language of activism works in some parts of the country and not in others? And if that's the case, what do you do about that — how do you find the common ground?

I think Joe Biden showed how to find common ground, as did Bernie Sanders. We can speak about budgeting our values. In other words, we can make it clear that we support law enforcement. We recognize how essential their role is in a community, but that we also have to budget for mental health services, for social services, and community budgets need to reflect the diversity of needs of a community. And I think that if we are constructive in how we message it, we can appeal to this sentiment of the Black Lives Matter movement while explaining principles in matters of common sense.

What are you going to be looking for to see how open to progressive ideas President-elect Biden will be?

Well, President-elect Biden is off to a great start with his appointment of Ron Klain [as White House chief of staff]. I know Ron Klain very well. He has reached out many times to progressives, come to the Hill, indicated a willingness to work with us. So I think the personnel is going to matter a lot.

And then, of course, the issues of his agenda. What are we going to start with in terms of the size of our stimulus and in terms of the size of our infrastructure program and other priorities?

Biden says he doesn't want Medicare for All, likes the idea of Obamacare expansion, likes a public option, thinks the eligibility age for Medicare should be 60, not 65. As far as you are concerned, is that enough?

Well, of course, I support Medicare for All. I think that that is the best system economically and also will cover everyone while lowering the premiums by not having premiums and copays. But I think a good starting point is to deliver on what the task forces came up with. So, let's at least extend Medicare to 60. Let's make sure we at least get a public option. And I think what progressives will be looking for is to implement, at the very least, the task forces that President-elect Biden ran on.

NPR's Avery Keatley and Steve Mullis produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Emma Bowman adapted it for the Web.

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

Noel King (@NoelKing) is editorial director and host of Today, Explained, Vox’s flagship daily news podcast. In addition to hosting the show, King, who joined Vox earlier this year, sets Today, Explained’s direction as the show embarks on a new chapter of growth, developing special series, reporting ambitious stories and more.