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They were pointed questions, not personal criticisms. But they will have conveyed a warning to Joe Biden that the patience of the left of the Democratic party and its leaders in ‘the Squad’ of progressive politicians is not infinite.
“Are we passing the deal that helps working people the most?” asked Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the firebrand New York congresswoman and best known member of the squad. “Are we passing the deal that makes the most jobs? Are we passing a deal that brings down the most climate emissions? Are we passing a deal that raises wages and actually improves our infrastructure for the next generation?”
Ocasio-Cortez’s appearance on the influential TV program Morning Joe last week came with the US president weeks into negotiations with Republicans over a massive infrastructure spending package – and apparently little to show for it.
The squad and others on the left of the party have remained broadly supportive of Biden as he seeks to restore an era of bipartisan cooperation. But with his agenda stalling on Capitol Hill, frustrations are mounting and threatening to crack the facade of Democratic unity.
It was Ocasio-Cortez, a social media star with a global profile, who hailed Biden’s first hundred days in office as having “definitely exceeded expectations that progressives had”. After all, the president’s staggering $1.9tn coronavirus relief package had been swiftly passed by Congress and signed into law, albeit without a $15-an-hour federal minimum wage that liberals have long sought.
Now cold reality is intruding, however. Legislation on voting rights, gun safety, immigration and police brutality is faltering in a House of Representatives where Democrats hold a slender 220-211 majority and a Senate split 50-50 with Republicans (vice president Kamala Harris gives the party the tie-breaking vote).
Biden’s next big ticket item, the American Jobs Plan, which initially proposed more than $2trn for infrastructure, is facing a rockier road. He conceded ground in negotiations with Republican senator Shelley Moore Capito that ultimately collapsed. Then a bipartisan group of senators came up with a $1.2trn proposal but, progressives say, it fails to address the climate crisis, healthcare and childcare.
Democratic leaders are now discussing a two-step process in which they pass a smaller bill with bipartisan support but then follow up with a second measure passed through a process known as budget reconciliation, which would require near total party unanimity.
The underlying challenge for Biden is how to keep together an unwieldy Democratic coalition that encompasses conservative senator Joe Manchin from West Virginia – which is Donald Trump country – and senator Bernie Sanders, a self-declared democratic socialist from Vermont, who this week drafted a $6trn infrastructure package.
Then there is the squad, the left-leaning group of House members that now consists of seven people of color. The more that Manchin digs in his heels against ambitious legislation, the more restive the squad is likely to become, raising difficult questions over whether Biden is applying sufficient pressure to bring the doubters on board.
Yvette Simpson, chief executive of the progressive organization Democracy for America, said: “Right now people are really getting frustrated because it’s been six months and we don’t see Joe Biden engaging in the way that he should to push for more support. In fact, he’s negotiating against us and what Democrats want."