PROGRESSIVE POLITICS - Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York warned Sunday that congressional Democrats risk depressing turnout in upcoming elections if they further weaken their flagship reconciliation package, which right-wing lawmakers have already stripped of popular programs and cut by roughly $2 trillion overall.
In an interview with the New York Times, Ocasio-Cortez said that "the stakes are really, really high" as the reconciliation bill—known as the Build Back Better Act—heads to the evenly divided Senate, where Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and other conservative Democrats will have additional opportunities to erode the package's investments in climate action, housing, child care, and other key areas.
"I think that if we pass the Build Back Better Act as the House passed it, that we have a shot to go back to our communities and say we delivered," said the New York Democrat. "But that's not to say that this process has not been demoralizing for a lot of folks, because there were enormous promises made. Not just at the beginning, and not just during the election, but that continued to be made."
"And this is where I have sounded the alarm, because what really dampens turnout is when Democrats make promises that they don't keep," she added. "With the bipartisan infrastructure plan, there's all of these headlines going around. And I understand the political importance of making a victory lap. But I think that the worst and most vulnerable position we could be in is to over-promise and under-deliver."
Ocasio-Cortez pointed specifically to the lofty promises that accompanied enactment of the $550 billion bipartisan infrastructure law, which includes $15 billion in funding for lead pipe remediation—about $30 billion less than what President Joe Biden originally proposed. The law also includes $25 billion in potential subsidies for the fossil fuel industry.
"Let's not go around and say, 'We're going to replace every lead pipe in this country,' because according to the bipartisan infrastructure plan, that is not going to happen," Ocasio-Cortez said. "That has not been funded. And if the Build Back Better Act gets cut even further, then that's definitely not going to happen."
The New York Democrat's remarks came days after the House of Representatives passed the Build Back Better Act, which—in its current form—would invest around $1.75 trillion over ten years in clean energy development, public housing, early childhood education, hearing benefits for Medicare recipients, and other programs.
To fund its investments, the bill proposes a surtax on millionaires, a 15% minimum tax on large corporations, and a plan to lower sky-high prescription drug prices that was significantly watered downby pharma-friendly Democrats.
In the Senate, where Democrats can't afford to lose a single vote, Manchin is expected to force the removal of a paid leave plan that progressive policy analysts have said is deeply flawed. It's unclear which other programs Manchin—backed by the fossil fuel industry and GOP donors—may target.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), meanwhile, is vowing to strengthenthe package in the upper chamber by reincluding vision and dental benefits for Medicare and removing the bill's large tax cutfor rich households.
Speaking to the Times, Ocasio-Cortez said that failure to deliver a robust bill—as well as voting rights legislation and other Democratic priorities—could fuel "political nihilism" and reinforce "the idea that nothing we do matters."
"Democrats have a trifecta and have been unable to pass voting-rights protections," she said. "People can wring their hands and say 'but Manchin' all they want, or 'but the filibuster' all they want, but at the end of the day, what people see are the results of their actions and the results of investing their time."
In addition to Democrats' legislative efforts in Congress, Ocasio-Cortez also urged Biden to make use of his executive authority to broadly cancel federal student loan debt—a step the president has thus far refused to take, intensifying fears that youth voter turnout could collapse.
"There is an enormous amount of executive action that they're sitting on that I think is underutilized," the New York Democrat said. "We've got executive action on the table with respect to climate. There are certainly things that we can do with immigration. So why are we taking this as a legislative compromise, when the opportunity is so much greater, or when Biden could do this stuff with a stroke of a pen, and is just reminding us that he's choosing not to?"
(Jake Johnson is a staff writer for Common Dreams.)