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The strategists behind 'the Squad' launch PAC to push progressive agenda in Congress

Hunter Walker
·White House Correspondent
·8-min read

WASHINGTON — People in Arizona and West Virginia are about to hear a flurry of attacks against two of their Democratic senators in the coming weeks.

On Feb. 2, a group called No Excuses PAC announced plans to challenge Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, and West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, two of the more moderate members of the Democratic caucus. The effort is, in part, designed to push Senate Democrats to override Republicans and pursue larger economic relief packages amid the coronavirus pandemic.

In the coming days, No Excuses plans to launch a newspaper and radio advertising blitz. “Our goal is to blanket the state geographically, hitting hundreds of thousands of folks every week,” said Corbin Trent, one of three co-founders of the political action committee.

Corbin Trent, Saikat Chakrabarti and Zack Exley. (Jonathan Bachman/Reuters (2), Victor Grigas/Wikicommons)
Corbin Trent, Saikat Chakrabarti and Zack Exley. (Jonathan Bachman/Reuters [2], Victor Grigas/Wikicommons)

No Excuses PAC is also trying to recruit candidates to run against Manchin and Sinema, who are both up for reelection in 2024. And the group’s leaders have some experience finding political talent. The committee’s other two co-founders, Saikat Chakrabarti and Zack Exley, previously helped start Justice Democrats, an incubator that helped drive the 2018 elections of the four women known as “the Squad,” who have become among the most prominent voices in Congress.

The attempt to take on Manchin and Sinema is just one of several projects the trio has underway. The goal is to create organizations designed to advance a progressive agenda akin to the constellation of think tanks, media organizations and advocacy groups that have long pushed for centrist and conservative policies in Washington. Their work provides an early glimpse into the opportunities — and challenges — for progressives as they navigate Biden’s Washington.

The co-founders launched No Excuses PAC earlier this year in response to Manchin’s lack of support for $2,000 coronavirus stimulus checks. Their push to challenge Manchin and Sinema is focused on the pair’s resistance to ending the filibuster, a Senate rule that requires 60 members to end debate on a bill and move it to the floor for a vote. As a result of the filibuster, it is difficult for legislation — including Biden’s ambitious coronavirus relief proposals — to pass with a simple majority, which is critically important to Democrats, who have just a single-vote advantage over Republicans.

According to Trent, No Excuses is set to launch ads on nine different radio stations and in multiple newspapers in the two states. Based on materials reviewed by Yahoo News, the ads will accuse Sinema and Manchin of “standing in the way of progress” and declare that “the filibuster must die for America to live.”

Sen. Joe Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema. (Chip Somodevilla/Pool via AP, Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)
Sen. Joe Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema. (Chip Somodevilla/Pool via AP, Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Sinema’s and Manchin’s offices did not respond to requests for comment. Trent declined to say exactly how much the group is spending on the advertising blitz, but he stressed that focusing on radio and newspapers will allow the group to be more effective than spending money on more high-priced television spots.

“All told, we should be reaching millions of people a week with our efforts,” Trent said. “Fact is, done right, a couple hundred thousand dollars can blanket a state for weeks. You can really squeeze a lot out of a dollar and an hour of time if you’re creative.”

The challenges to Manchin and Sinema exemplify their approach. No Excuses PAC is one of three cooperating initiatives they have set up that are focused on ambitious policies and pressuring Democrats to use new tools to get those plans through Congress.

Last year, they started a small media company that has produced a podcast, “Building the Dream,” to promote their other efforts. The podcast is also involved in recruiting challengers for Manchin and Sinema, with various potential candidates making on-air appearances and effectively auditioning for support.

Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY., right, and her chief of staff Saikat Chakrabarti, left, on Capitol Hill in Washington on Nov. 14, 2018. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)
Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Chakrabarti on Capitol Hill in 2018. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

But the organization that is taking the majority of their time is New Consensus, a think tank that Exley and Chakrabarti helped found in 2018. The policy shop initially pushed an aggressive Green New Deal to take on climate change. In 2019, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., introduced a Green New Deal resolution that was influenced by the think tank and went on to earn the support of over 100 House members and 14 senators. At the time, both Trent and Chakrabarti were on Ocasio-Cortez’s staff.

With Biden in office and the pair now working outside of Congress, New Consensus has released a flurry of white papers including plans for ambitious coronavirus relief, expansion of the vaccine rollout and using the Treasury Department to invest in both American industry and the pandemic response. The think tank also issued policy recommendations for how Biden can pursue these initiatives with his exceedingly slim Senate majority.

Bob Hockett, a veteran academic and a New Consensus fellow, said in an interview that the group’s proposals fall into two broad categories: substantive policy and “procedural priorities,” such as eliminating the filibuster. Hockett said the procedural changes to minimize Republican influence are the only way he believes they can “get the substantive priorities to move forward.”

While the group is clear on how they want to see large infrastructure programs paid for, they are decidedly less transparent about their own funding. Chakrabarti, who came to Washington after a career in Silicon Valley, declined to comment on the funding of the various groups beyond saying the PAC is “all small donors” and “email fundraising.”

Exley said they are staying focused on remaining nimble. “We’re not building some giant infrastructure,” he explained. “We’re building several small, agile guerrilla operations.”

For Chakrabarti, who ran the upstart campaign that elected Ocasio-Cortez in 2018 and went on to serve as her chief of staff, the goal is to influence the discussion.

“We don’t play the inside game. We’re not just trying to go around trying to push from behind the scenes and try to just build support that way,” he said. “We’re doing that, but always in addition to putting stuff out publicly and trying to build public support. We’re trying to organize movements around it.”

Saikat Chakrabarti, Chief of Staff for Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY works with staff in his office in the Cannon House Office Building on June 26, 2019 in Washington, DC.  (Mary F. Calvert For The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Chakrabarti, who was Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff, in his office in 2019. (Mary F. Calvert for the Washington Post via Getty Images)

Chakrabarti pointed to the Green New Deal, saying New Consensus’s plan for climate change wasn’t copied wholesale for the congressional resolution but that its influence on the proposal was clear. And along with the momentum in Congress, the policy push helped spur several presidential candidates, including Biden, to make aggressive action on climate change part of their platform.

And while the New Consensus crew says they’re not focused on the “inside game,” they claim to have gotten some attention from the Biden administration. According to Exley, the group briefed officials on Biden’s transition team before he took office last month. The White House declined to comment on whether officials have engaged with the group. Biden’s chief of staff, Ron Klain, has also publicly made it a point to engage with progressive groups and evaluate their recommendations.

Within the group, there are varying levels of optimism about how much influence progressives can have over the president. While Hockett is hopeful because of Biden’s ambitious coronavirus relief proposal and his placement of progressive icons in the Oval Office — including a bust of César Chávez and a portrait of FDR — the other co-founders are far more cautious.

“The only way that people are going to feel a real, tangible difference in their lives is if the Biden administration organizes a multitrillion-dollar investment into jobs ... into actual industries, and building new industries,” Exley said.

President Joe Biden arrives on the South Lawn of the White House on Feb. 8, 2021, in Washington. (Evan Vucci/AP)
President Biden on the South Lawn of the White House on Monday. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Chakrabarti said the major difference between the Biden and Trump eras is the fact that there’s “some opportunity for anything to happen at all.” However, former President Donald Trump’s chaotic tenure set the “bar so low” that some Democrats may be satisfied with modest progress.

“The reality is, that’s not going to cut it. There are millions of people actually suffering if Biden doesn’t significantly improve the lives of all these people in the first few years,” Chakrabarti said.

While Biden has promised to take aggressive action — particularly on the pandemic — he has also made unity and bipartisanship a cornerstone of his agenda. Chakrabarti fears these two aspects of the president’s approach are “fundamentally incompatible with each other.”

And without pressure, he fears that the Democratic establishment is “going to make excuses” for Biden if he is able to make only modest progress on his goals.

“A big apolitical middle of America just wants stuff to get fixed,” Chakrabarti said. “There is really no excuse for inaction.”

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