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Biden's feeling pressure from the Squad and leftie Democrats — and America's benefitting

The recent eviction moratorium episode underscores the tense but productive relationship between Biden and lawmakers to his left.
Image: Cori Bush and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo., and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., smile after it was announced that the Biden administration will enact a targeted nationwide eviction moratorium outside of Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday.Amanda Andrade-Rhoades / AP/ MSNBC

When the Biden administration let a moratorium on housing evictions lapse over the weekend, exposing millions of Americans to the threat of homelessness while the economy continues to struggle through the coronavirus pandemic, progressive Democrats used the power of protest to induce him to issue a new moratorium.

Biden has a mixed record in the eyes of progressives.

The past several days show that while the small bloc of leftist Democrats have a complicated relationship with President Joe Biden — a politician whose policy vision has surprised them in ways both pleasant and unpleasant — they can use an outsider strategy to successfully pressure him.

Biden has a mixed record in the eyes of progressives. He won, for example, the approbation of many leftie lawmakers with his spending ambition on his first, colossal coronavirus relief bill. But he has also disappointed them with failure to fulfill promises to end draconian immigration policies. Left-leaning lawmakers have had to pick battles carefully, choosing to support some of his policies in exchange for input, while pushing back on others.

This time it fell to the small but scrappy left wing of the Democrats to use a bolder protest strategy to create a sense of urgency regarding the eviction crisis. Rep. Cori Bush of Missouri, who has experienced homelessness after eviction firsthand, slept on the steps of the Capitol beginning on Friday to protest the end of the moratorium, receiving support from lefty superstars Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. Her use of direct action received quite a bit of attention in the press and social media, and intensified growing criticism of Biden.

Her campaign, combined with failures in Congress to move on a bill to extend the moratorium, seemed to work. On Tuesday, the Biden administration issued a new halt on evictions to be instituted in counties “with heightened levels of community transmission in order to respond to recent, unexpected developments in the trajectory of the Covid-19 pandemic, including the rise of the Delta variant.” It covers areas where around 90 percent of the population lives until October.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh specifically wrote the Biden administration did not have authority to renew the moratorium.

Somewhere between 4 million and 15 million people who have fallen behind on housing payments are now protected from being pushed out of their homes for at least a little bit longer while the economy is still in recovery mode and the coronavirus’ delta variant is surging.

But why did this even happen in the first place?

The Biden administration had argued its hands were tied due to a Supreme Court ruling in June that indicated it considered the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's eviction moratorium unconstitutional.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh specifically wrote the Biden administration did not have authority to renew the moratorium using its executive powers and that “congressional authorization (via new legislation) would be necessary for the CDC to extend the moratorium past July 31.”

The Supreme Court’s ruling — which reflects the opinion of its powerful conservative majority — is of course consequential and limiting. But what it doesn’t explain is why Biden and Democratic leaders in Congress didn’t act quickly to try to put together that legislation extending the moratorium.

Despite having a month between the Supreme Court ruling and the expiration of the last moratorium, only on Thursday — two days before it ended — did the White House abruptly call upon Congress to find a way to extend it.

Two House Democrats who had wanted to work on that effort told The Washington Post they had been waiting for guidance from the Biden administration before trying to craft legislation, but it appears it didn’t come until the very last second. A senior Biden administration official also admitted to The Post that it all seemed too little too late: “Why are we doing this now? Why did we wait so long? It’s very weird.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., couldn't find the votes within her own caucus as she scrambled at the last second.

There’s certainly no guarantee that even with more time Democrats could’ve rammed through legislation to extend the moratorium, particularly since in the Senate the Democrats would need to put together a filibuster-proof majority. But given the stakes and the importance of buying any time for the distribution of federal aid to states and localities, it was a poor showing by Democratic leaders.

Biden said Tuesday that he expected the new eviction moratorium to be challenged in the courts but that it was worth a shot.

“The bulk of the constitutional scholarship says that it’s not likely to pass constitutional muster,” he said. “But there are several key scholars who think that it may and it’s worth the effort.”

Democrats and low-income housing experts say it should buy some valuable time for renters. That’s because state and local governments have only disbursed some $3 billion of more than $46 billion in emergency rental relief that Congress allocated through coronavirus relief bills so far, and states need time to institute or extend their own eviction moratoria. In other words, even a few more weeks is critical for getting more assistance out the door.

There's much more to be done, but for now, the impact of Bush and the rest of "the squad" on the recent moratorium is a reminder that the outside agitation approach can bear fruit.