Treasury Secretary Warren? Progressives line up to press their agenda on Biden

They have an extensive blacklist for possible Biden appointees they do not like. They want to elevate allies like Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont to premier government posts. And they are even considering the possibility of bypassing Senate approval to fill executive branch roles.

As progressives have watched the Senate potentially slip out of reach this week, they have begun preparing to unleash a furious campaign to pressure President-elect Joe Biden over personnel and priorities — even as they wrestle with the results of the election and the possible need to be more realistic about expectations over the next two years.

“For those of us who focus on governance and economic and social justice, this election is a dismal rubber stamp of the unacceptable status quo,” said Larry Cohen, chair of Our Revolution, a progressive group. “Black, brown and white working Americans see their hopes of real reform evaporate for now, even while cheering the victory over Trump.”

The left is now pinning its hopes on the Democrats winning two Senate runoff elections in Georgia in January. Progressive groups including the Sunrise Movement, an organization of young climate activists, are already drawing up plans to mobilize their networks and provide organizing muscle to the Democratic campaigns there.

But as election results have trickled in, excitement in progressive circles for their federal agenda has given way to disappointment and even anger. Despite the surging energy on the left, a moderate is poised to sit in the White House. And unless Democrats can pick up both Georgia seats, Republicans will almost certainly end up holding the Senate, which may drastically limit what a Biden administration can accomplish in terms of legislation, presidential appointments and judicial nominations.

Far from the mandate they had sought, progressives are now trying to figure out whether they can achieve even their less ambitious policy goals.

“Everything’s harder with a Republican Senate,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington, co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “There’s just no question about that.”

Since the polls closed Tuesday night, frustration on the left has at times spilled into the open. Some progressives have second-guessed the Democratic establishment’s messaging strategy and its approach to Senate races, which revolved around backing moderate candidates who officials thought could appeal to independents and Republicans disaffected with President Donald Trump. And there has been public questioning of Democratic efforts to court Latino voters after Biden’s losses in Texas and Florida.

Most liberals recognized that Biden was almost certain not to support all of their priorities or accept all of their proposals, regardless of the outcome in the Senate. They were, for instance, under no illusion that he would appoint progressives to every Cabinet position or pass policies like “Medicare for All.”

Yet their more downbeat mood is a drastic shift from just days ago. Buoyed by a new class of progressives heading to the House of Representatives — including Jamaal Bowman, in a New York district that includes parts of the Bronx and Westchester County, and Cori Bush in St. Louis — the party’s left flank was planning a three-pronged strategy to push Biden, should he win, on personnel, legislation and institutional change.

They were envisioning a wide-ranging legislative agenda that included plans to expand access to health care, create jobs and combat climate change. They also dreamed of structural changes to the political system such as statehood for Washington, D.C., eliminating the legislative filibuster and increasing the number of justices on the Supreme Court.

Many had been cautiously optimistic that Biden’s administration would at least be receptive to their proposals, pointing in particular to his leftward shift since the primaries on issues like climate, health care and education. Progressives also believed that the coronavirus crisis made Biden more inclined to consider a broad agenda that responds to the extraordinary circumstances.

But as they adjust to the possible new reality of divided government, many progressive groups and leaders are focusing their attention on Biden’s executive branch appointments with intense urgency, viewing these positions as gatekeepers, in effect, for vast numbers of policies.

In recent weeks, they have called on Biden not to appoint any corporate lobbyists or C-suite corporate executives to executive branch positions. A group called the Revolving Door Project is already drawing up a “blacklist” of possible Biden appointments that progressives may view as problematic.

“We want appointees who will wake up trying to figure out, ‘What can I do to make this government work for people?’” said Jeff Hauser, executive director of the Revolving Door Project. “There are allies who focus more on who they do want. We focus on who we don’t want.”

Some on the left, including Hauser, have already expressed opposition to two of Biden’s apparent top choices for Treasury Secretary: Lael Brainard, a Federal Reserve governor, in part for her record on trade and currency manipulation in China; and Gov. Gina Raimondo of Rhode Island, a former venture capitalist, whose overhaul of her state’s public pension system made her deeply unpopular with some labor unions.

Instead, many liberals are pushing Biden both in private and public to name Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts to the position — a post that Warren herself wants, according to a person familiar with her thinking (a spokesperson for Warren declined to comment). Others on the progressives’ shortlist for the position include Sarah Bloom Raskin, who served as deputy secretary of the Treasury under President Barack Obama and Janet Yellen, the former chair of the Federal Reserve.

Sanders is interested in serving as labor secretary, according to a person close to the senator, and his camp and Biden’s team have been seriously discussing the possibility since the Vermont senator dropped out of the presidential race in April. There is no deal between the camps, and it is still unclear what role Sanders may want to play in a Biden administration.

Sanders’ operation has also offered the Biden transition team lists of preferred names for Cabinet positions and prominent jobs in the administration, including Keith Ellison, the Minnesota attorney general, for U.S. attorney general and Julián Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio, for housing secretary, a position he held in the Obama administration.

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