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The days leading up to Christmas brought progressives a present under the tree when President Joe Biden extended a pause on student loans, and a lump of coal from West Virginia’s own Joe Manchin when he announced on Fox News that he opposed Democrats’ proposed Build Back Better legislation.
But they also showed the challenges and the opportunities the Squad – which includes Democratic Reps Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, Cori Bush of Missouri, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and New Yorkers Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman – face within their own caucus.
Ms Pressley along with Sen Elizabeth Warren and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer have been the most vocal members of Congress for cancelling student debt. And at the same time, while Mr Manchin’s opposition to the sweeping social spending legislation was deeply disappointing, the fact they voted against the bipartisan infrastructure bill seemed prescient because Democrats no longer had any leverage to convince Mr Manchin or fellow conservative Democrat Sen Kyrsten Sinema.
The double barrel of news before the Christmas holidays represented the latest examples of how the Squad navigated its first year during the Biden administration. The group was born during the Trump presidency and was just as much a rebellion against what its members saw as timid inaction from Democrats as it was then-president Donald Trump’s policies.
But Mr Biden is cut from the same mold of Democrats whom many of the Squad challenged in their primaries and also promised to return to “unity,” which he mentioned eight times in his inaugural address. Similarly, plenty of Democrats had blamed the Squad’s style of politics for shaving off their majority in 2022 for pushing slogans like “Defund the Police” during 2020. In turn, the Squad occasionally found themselves in opposition to the White House but also worked together with him.
One other major change was that the Squad added two additional members. Mr Bowman beat longtime incumbent Eliot Engel while Ms Bush won a primary against Rep William Lacy Clay, whose father had held the Missouri seat for decades before then.
The first major fight the Squad made with both Congressional leadership and the White House was when an eviction moratorium put in place by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lapsed at the end of July. That prompted members of the Squad like Ms Bush, who spearheaded the effort, as well as other members to sleep on the steps of the Capitol. Initially, they equally assailed House leadership and the White House and demanded the House bring everyone back to Washington, but after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called on the White House to act, they changed their tone.
“I think the White House is in the wrong here, I actually think the speaker is correct,” Ms Ocasio-Cortez told The Independent at the time as Capitol Police had prohibited her from lying down on the House steps. Eventually, the White House extended the eviction moratorium before the Supreme Court blocked it.
“I think that one of the differences is that they’re bringing their activist experience and organizing backgrounds into a legislative institution, and it potentially leads the way to a different way of doing politics,” Catherine N Wineinger, an associate professor at Western Washington University who tracks women in politics and was a congressional fellow in Ms Tlaib’s office, said. Ms Wineinger said she planned for her next project to be on how they combine the identities of being an elected official and an activist.
“I think that’s the other sort of difference between the folks who were elected prior to 2018 and the folks who were elected after 2018, the progressive women of colour. I think there’s two differences. One is they’re coming in with an activist background, and, two, they’re coming in with a level of authenticity that I don’t think we’ve necessarily seen before,” she said.
But if the Squad found themselves able to hold the White House accountable, they found themselves in a peculiar position at times siding with the Biden administration and sometimes in direct opposition to them when it came to infrastructure and Build Back Better, the president’s proposed legislation that included provisions to combat climate change, expand Medicare, enhance a child tax credit, provide affordable childcare and increase spending for home services for people with disabilities and elderly people.
Because of the tight 50-50 makeup of the Senate and Mr Manchin and fellow conservative Democrat Sen Sinema’s criticisms, the president prioritised the passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill through the Senate and to significantly slash the cost from an original $6 trillion to $1.75 trillion. Initially, Ms Pelosi had pledged not to pass the bipartisan bill without Build Back Better. But after initial pressure from House moderates, she attempted to institute a deadline to vote on it. But progressive opposition meant that deadline passed.
After the first delay, progressives felt optimistic that Mr Biden was on their side. But eventually, after Mr Manchin demanded the vote on the bipartisan bill, Ms Pelosi chose to hold the vote on the bipartisan bill. That prompted the Congressional Progressive Caucus to hold an hours-long huddle in one of the House office buildings that included a call-in from the president. In the end, all of the members of the caucus voted for it except for the Squad members.
“I have said that me personally, I want to see both of the bills come and pass simultaneously,” Ms Omar told The Independent at the time. “That wasn’t the case. I voted no on the BIF as I promised.”
Tré Easton, a senior adviser to the progressive Battle Born Collective, said neither group of progressives could be held to fault for their vote because of the role of Mr Manchin and Ms Sinema.
“But also, the thing that we don’t really talk about is that, as badly as Manchin and Sinema wanted the bipartisan bill to get passed, they were also very willing to let it die and blame progressives for killing it,” he said. “And I think, for progressives who voted for the bipartisan bill, that’s them voting their district, voting their conscience. And for folks who voted against the bipartisan bill, that’s them voting their district, voting their conscience.”
Leah Greenburg, a co-founder of Indivisible, said that it was important to note that Mr Biden was the one who split his ambitious infrastructure agenda, which included elements of both Build Back Better and the bipartisan bill, into two pieces of legislation.
“Progressives were attempting to use the leverage that they had,” said Ms Greenburg. “They were doing a good job of executing a strategy on a playing field that had been set up for them by the strategic decisions the Biden administration made. And it’s hard to win when you’re fighting harder for the president’s priorities than he is.”
At the time, Ms Pressley said that she was in regular contact with the White House but framed her opposition to the “hard infrastructure bill” as supporting Mr Biden’s agenda.
“This is not a fringe wish list of things,” she said. “These are investments that meet the moment, that meets the most basic needs of everyone who calls this country home.”
Similarly, Ms Greenburg said that one of the difficulties for progressive members like the Squad is that many of the people who control the levers of power in Congress and in the White House are from the older guard that is not as left-wing as them.
But moderates continued to blame the Squad and other progressives for not passing the bipartisan bill, especially after Republican Glenn Youngkin became the first Republican in a decade to win the governorship in Virginia and beat moderate former Gov Terry McAuliffe. Some Democrats like consultant James Carville blamed “stupid wokeness” for losing the governor’s race.
But even before the governor’s race, plenty of Democrats fumed about the Squad and progressives’ demands to have a vote on Build Back Better before the bipartisan bill, as Rep Stephanie Murphy, a moderate from Florida did in late October to reporters.
“Their reason for not supporting that is a political reason, a reason that only resonates within the Beltway, but it does not resonate with my constituents or their constituents” she said at the time, accusing them of moving the goalposts. “We are dealing with “the never enough caucus” and that is really unfortunate for my constituents.”
But looking back on the year, Ms Greenburg said it was not factually correct to claim that the Squad was somehow more culpable, especially when figures like Mr McAuliffe were traditionally moderate Democrats.
“And I think that it’s pretty consistently the case that the causal mechanism by which you can actually attribute blame to progressives is incredibly weak,” she said. Similarly, she noted how Mr Biden’s numbers did not improve once it passed.
“Consistently what we’re seeing in the drop off with Democratic voters is these are people who are disappointed with Democrats for not delivering on their core promises,” she said. “You fix that by attacking the people who are trying to actually deliver.”
At the same time, there were plenty of occasions where progressives had their bona fides challenged because of the difficulties of governing. During a vote on funding for Israel’s Iron Dome defence system Ms Ocasio-Cortez initially voted no before ultimately voting present, which prompted her to shed tears. Later on, the Democratic Socialists of America had a vote about whether to expel Mr Bowman for his vote on the Iron Dome funding though ultimately decided against it.
As if the difficulties of navigating the contours of their own party weren’t the only peril though. Many of them were also subjected to a disproportionate amount of hate from their right-wing colleagues. Rep Marjorie Taylor Greene, the QAnon conspiracy-mongering congresswoman from Georgia, aggressively chased Ms Ocasio-Cortez. Similarly, Rep Paul Gosar of Arizona was censured by the House after he tweeted a doctored anime video showing a cartoon with his head killing a cartoon character with Ms Ocasio-Cortez’s face. During that time, Ms Ocasio-Cortez railed against Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy for failing to keep his members in line.
“Rep McCarthy is not skittish, he is encouraging of this behaviour,” she said.
In November, Rep Lauren Boebert of Colorado, another right-wing extremist member, was caught on video implying that Ms Omar would blow up the Capitol and called the members “the Jihad squad.” By the end of the year, there had been no formal consequences for Ms Boebert, despite urges from progressives. But at the same time, the House did pass a resolution from Ms Omar to combat Islamophobia globally, once again showing the promise and peril the Squad faced.