WASHINGTON – The rare clash this week between the Biden administration and congressional Democrats over a lapsed eviction moratorium could become a blueprint for even larger fights that lie ahead.
Finding allies in congressional leadership, a new generation of progressive lawmakers insisted the White House pay attention to them. Their tactics, including a well-publicized multiday protest on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, ultimately forced the administration to find a new way to keep most tenants in their homes.
After largely holding back as President Joe Biden spent his opening months in office courting moderate Democrats — and even some Republicans — many progressives say that deference is over. And with Democrats holding exceedingly narrow margins in Congress, that means the White House may have to pay closer attention to the left wing of the Democratic Party in the coming weeks, especially as the administration’s push for an infrastructure package intensifies.
“Hopefully, this has shown not only leadership, the caucus, but our progressive family that when we say we are not going to back down, we don’t back down,” said Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo., who staged the round-the-clock sit-in on the Capitol steps.
While progressives are feeling emboldened in Washington, there are warning signs. Voters in Ohio on Tuesday rejected a congressional candidate enthusiastically backed by progressive leader Sen. Bernie Sanders. That followed similar setbacks for the left in elections earlier this year in New York City and Virginia.
This week's progressive revolt, however, was distinguished by Bush's protest.
By the time she brought her chair to the Capitol steps late Friday, the House had already tried — and failed — to pass a quickly drafted bill to prevent a moratorium lapse. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told Biden a day earlier that Congress would not be able to provide a legislative fix.
As Bush began her vigil, people streamed to the steps to join the first-term lawmaker, who spoke passionately of her own time being unhoused, a young mother of two, living out of her Ford Explorer on the streets around what’s now her St. Louis-area congressional district.
Her visitors included Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, whose presence added to the media attention.
A quieter lobbying campaign was also taking place. Over several days, Pelosi rushed into a series of phone calls to Biden and senior White House officials, insisting the administration needed to move unilaterally and focus on a new moratorium directly linked to the public health emergency and the delta variant.
“She was saying things like: ‘They can do it, I don’t know what they’re talking about. They are not prevented from doing it,’” Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., the Financial Services Committee chairwoman, said of Pelosi.
“We said, ‘Mr. President, you have to step up to the plate,’” Waters said.
At the White House, officials were keenly aware that many of those impacted by the moratorium were Biden’s constituents and recognized the need to keep the liberals on the party line.
But many in the administration were galled by claims that they had failed to take aggressive action to stop evictions. A senior White House official who requested anonymity to discuss conversations with the president said their efforts were a beehive of energy and activity over several months.
The first challenge was that the Trump administration’s guidance for issuing rental aid required extensive documentation and hobbled the entire program. Biden’s team updated the guidance multiple times after consulting with advocates, academics and housing experts, trying to make it easier for states and cities to administer with updated guidance on Feb. 22, May 7 and June 24.
When the Supreme Court suggested that congressional approval would be needed to extend any moratorium, the White House turned to the local court system where the evictions occur. Their goal was to have local judges require efforts to receive the rental aid before approving any evictions, the official said.
But after days of bad headlines, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a new eviction moratorium that would last until Oct. 3. The ban announced Tuesday could help keep millions in their homes as the coronavirus’ delta variant has spread and states have been slow to release federal rental aid.
The senior White House official said the president had been told a national moratorium would likely be unconstitutional, but Biden kept instructing agencies to dig into the matter and look for ways to keep people in their homes. One of the keys was to have a moratorium that was targeted and dynamic — meaning that evictions could resume with a sufficient reduction in COVID-19 infections.
That made it different from the previous nationwide moratorium that was set without regard to the pandemic’s trends.
“This is also going to be a temporary solution regardless, and a longer-term solution will require legislative action,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday. “But (Biden’s) message to anyone who’s been a passionate advocate is that he shares their concern, he shares their commitment.”
To this point, Biden’s agenda has focused on working across the aisle with the bipartisan infrastructure deal, including keeping moderate Democratic senators happy. The president has yet to fully tackle progressive priorities like climate change, voting rights and student debt.
But the eviction moratorium was an undeniable win for the progressives — and proof of their clout heading into a budget package that is especially central to Biden’s promise to reshape government’s relationship with its citizens.
“Today is important because it marks, I hope, a turning point in the way that this White House views progressives,” said Rep. Mondaire Jones, D-N.Y. “We are prepared to leverage our energy and our activism in close coordination with grassroots activists and people all across this country of good conscience to do right by the American people.”
Moving forward, the administration knows the end of the latest eviction moratorium will be a problem if the aid is still sitting in state coffers.
The White House Domestic Policy Council and Gene Sperling, the official overseeing the coronavirus relief programs, are meeting with every department to find more ways to keep renters in their homes. And on Friday, White House adviser Susan Rice and Sperling will hold a Cabinet-level meeting with the ultimate goal of getting aid out through the states in order to reduce the number of potential evictions once the new moratorium ends.
In Congress, meanwhile, Waters said she has prepared a package of housing bills she will insist on being included in Biden's infrastructure measure.
Associated Press journalists Zeke Miller, Rick Gentilo and Derek Karikari contributed to this report.
This story has been corrected to reflect that Rep. Cori Bush began her sit-in at the Capitol on late Friday, not Saturday, and that she once lived on St. Louis-area streets with her children in a Ford Explorer, not a Ford Bronco.