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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 Senator 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 Joseph R. Biden Jr. 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, the chairman 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 Representative Pramila Jayapal of Washington, the co-chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “There’s just no question about that.”

Since the polls closed on 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 Trump. And there has been public questioning of Democratic efforts to court Latino voters after Mr. Biden’s losses in Texas and Florida.

Most liberals recognized that Mr. 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 Mr. Biden, should he win, on personnel, legislation and institutional change.

ImageCori Bush celebrating with supporters on election night in St. Louis.
Credit…Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images

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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Biden’s executive branch appointments with intense urgency, viewing these positions as gatekeepers, in effect, for vast numbers of policy.

In recent weeks, they have called on Mr. 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, the 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 Mr. Hauser, have already expressed opposition to two of Mr. 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 Mr. Biden both in private and public to name Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts to the position — a post that Ms. Warren herself wants, according to a person familiar with her thinking (a spokeswoman for Ms. 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.

Mr. Sanders is interested in serving as labor secretary, according to a person close to the senator, and his camp and Mr. Biden’s team have seriously been 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 Mr. Sanders may want to play in a Biden administration.

Mr. Sanders’s 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.

Credit…Anna Moneymaker for The New York Times

Other measures are in the works as well. The Sunrise Movement is planning to push Mr. Biden to form a new position, reporting directly to the president, that will be responsible for coordinating and mobilizing government agencies to address climate change.

Progressives are also compiling extensive lists of recommendations for a vast array of other key posts. The Progressive Change Institute, in collaboration with roughly 40 public interest, environmental and racial justice groups, has been assembling an extensive database of personnel who could stock a potential Democratic administration.

The database, which now has from 500 to 600 names, covers everything from cabinet positions to under secretary posts in more obscure executive-branch offices and bureaus, like the president of the Export-Import Bank and the director of the Patent and Trademark Office. The group hopes to deliver the list to the Biden transition team by the end of the week.

Progressives recognize that their work on appointments and policy may be much harder if there is a Republican Senate, as appears increasingly likely. It may not confirm appointments to key government posts whom Republicans view as too far left, a course of action that Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, has already suggested he would pursue.

And without enough Democratic allies in the Senate, there is almost no chance that the chamber will pass even the agenda that Mr. Biden supported in the run-up to the election, such as lowering the eligibility age for Medicare to 60 from 65.

“If Mitch McConnell was ultimately to control the Senate, it would dramatically lower the ceiling of what’s possible legislatively and increase the urgency of appointing good people to the executive branch to make things happen there,” said Adam Green, a co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a sister organization of the Progressive Change Institute, and an ally of Ms. Warren’s.

Progressives have not abandoned hope of passing legislation, either, even if a Republican Senate makes doing so much more difficult. They are optimistic that there is broadly palatable legislation that the Senate may still pass, including a coronavirus relief bill, a $15 federal minimum wage and investment in infrastructure.

“I believe that if Joe Biden is in the White House, it changes the dynamic where people know that there will be a president who will sign these things into law,” Ms. Jayapal said. “And that will help us a lot.”

“That’s the question: Are Republicans going to continue to be enablers of an outrageous Trump agenda even when he’s out of the White House?” she added. “Or are they actually going to start speaking for their constituents?”

But if election results have dashed progressive hopes on some issues, there is still a sense of resolve.

Waleed Shahid, a spokesman for the insurgent liberal group Justice Democrats, said it was “critical” for Democrats and Mr. Biden to govern like they just won a majority of the popular vote rather than seeking to appease Mr. McConnell and other Republicans. He warned that going after “small-ball deals” with Mr. McConnell could depress Democratic enthusiasm in the 2022 midterm elections. And he noted that Mr. Trump had appointed several people on an acting basis to positions that traditionally required Senate confirmation.

“Basically, Joe Biden should use every tool at his disposal to appoint an administration that will deliver for the voters who elected him,” he said. “There’s going to be a lot of efforts to push on the executive and what the executive can do.”

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