With trillions of dollars and potentially all of President Joe Biden’s domestic agenda on the line, Democratic U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal stared down her own party’s leadership. She didn’t blink.
All day Thursday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., had said the House would vote that day on a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill that represents a small portion of Biden’s agenda.
And all day, Jayapal had said that she, and most of the 96-member Congressional Progressive Caucus that she leads, would not vote for the infrastructure bill unless it was paired with the rest of Biden’s agenda — a vast $3.5 trillion package to raise taxes on the wealthy, make community college free, provide child care and paid family leave, expand Medicare and invest in programs to combat climate change.
Thursday evening, one of the few moderate Democrats skeptical of the bigger package told CNN he was “1,000 percent” certain the infrastructure bill would pass that night. Moments later, Jayapal said she was certain there would be no vote and if there was, it wouldn’t pass.
Jayapal was right. Realizing she didn’t have the votes, Pelosi never brought the bill up for a vote Thursday night.
Jayapal, the third-term congresswoman from West Seattle, has become one of the key negotiators as Democrats, with razor-thin majorities in the House and the Senate, try to pass the ambitious health care, child care, education and climate proposals that Biden ran on and are critical to the success of his presidency.
Biden’s agenda is split into those two bills and Jayapal, and the newly energized and organized progressive wing of the party, is trying to make sure that the smaller one doesn’t pass without the larger one.
“We made all these promises to voters across the country that we were going to deliver on this agenda, it’s not some crazy left-wing wish list,” Jayapal said in an interview Friday. “I feel like we in the Democratic Party have lost so many voters, because they don’t see us fighting for the things that might be a little bit harder to get across the finish line.”
The crux of the matter: Both Biden and vast majorities of Democrats in the House and Senate want to pass both bills.
The Senate has passed the physical infrastructure package, boosting spending for roads, transit and broadband internet. It was negotiated, in part, by two centrist Democrats, Sen. Joe Manchin, of West Virginia, and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, of Arizona.
But Manchin and Sinema have balked at the larger bill. And, with Democrats having only a one-vote majority in the Senate, and no hopes of getting even a single Republican vote for the larger package, they can’t afford to lose either senator.
Meanwhile, Jayapal and her progressive caucus have used the infrastructure bill as leverage. Ultimately, they’ll support it, but they are refusing to vote for it until Manchin and Sinema (and the rest of the Senate) sign on to some form of the climate and social programs package.
“If you vote for this other package,” Jayapal said, describing her tactics, “we vote for your package. so it’s like mutually assured success, things are linked.”
Negotiations continue. On Friday, Biden came to Congress to meet privately with House Democrats and expressed confidence they would ultimately pass both bills.
The key power centers now include not just Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, not just the White House and the two holdout senators, but Jayapal and the caucus she represents.
“Jayapal is providing a master class these last few weeks in how to wield power,” wrote Brian Fallon, director of the progressive group Demand Justice, and a former staffer for Schumer and on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
Jayapal’s tactic of withholding support for one bill until she gets a commitment on the other “has 100% worked,” Fallon said.
“It allowed the Biden administration to sort of stand back,” he said. “They let Jayapal be the bad cop here, I think there’s sort of a wink-wink relationship in her making these demands. I think the White House has been sort of happy for her to play this role.”
Jayapal declined Friday to say what they might be willing to sacrifice from the larger bill in order to appease Manchin and Sinema. She first wants to see a “definitive offer” from both senators.
This is a relatively new development within the Democratic Party — the progressive wing of the party flexing its muscle and not, Jayapal said, “settling all the time for the smallest thing.”
“It’s a huge departure from business as usual,” Max Berger, of the progressive group More Perfect Union, wrote this week. “Progressives have a veto over what Democrats pass in the House. It’s the beginning of an era of progressive governance that will shift power to working people.”
Jayapal, said Fallon, has “changed the dynamic in Washington a bit, because the next time the House Progressive Caucus says we’re going to hold this up, people will believe them.“
Jayapal chairs the Progressive Caucus, after acting as co-chair last year. When she arrived in Congress in 2017, she said, there “wasn’t much collective action here.”
Since then, the caucus has increased its numbers and its staff. It’s passed a new rules package, requiring members to vote with the caucus in certain situations.
“I feel like I’ve been able to bring an organizer’s mentality here and build a caucus that thinks of itself as a collective caucus, the collective entity, and that acts in a collective way,” Jayapal said.
The past week, she said, has involved “very little sleep” — maybe four or five hours a night, as she stays in touch with her members and tries to get their concerns across in negotiations. It has been hard to turn on CNN or MSNBC without seeing her at the center of a gaggle of reporters.
She’s constantly calling, texting and meeting with progressive members. She met with Pelosi in the speaker’s office earlier this week. She’s “regularly” talking with the White House.
They are, of course, all still pushing for the same policy, even if there may be disagreements on how to get there. Neither the president nor the speaker has leaned on her yet, really demanding her vote.
“I’m sure that time will come,” she said. “But we have a lot of votes and, you know, we’re continuing to represent the caucus.”