Oct. 16, 2021
I RECENTLY confided to Pramila Jayapal, the leader of the House Progressive Caucus, that I was literally losing sleep over the fate of the giant social spending bill she’s negotiating. It’s been impressive to see the left exert control over Congress, refusing to move on legislation cherished by moderates until there’s a deal on a bill containing progressive priorities. At the same time, it’s been terrifying to imagine what it will mean for the Biden presidency — and the future of the country — if an agreement isn’t reached soon.
Was she sure, I wanted to know, that progressive resolve wouldn’t blow up in all our faces?
She insisted she wasn’t worried. “We’re going to get both bills done,” she said.
The details of the procedural battle that Jayapal is fighting are stultifying to describe, but the stakes are existential for the social safety net and the environment, not to mention American democracy. A dysfunctional and evenly divided Senate means that Democrats probably have only one shot to enact progressive policies on climate, health care, child care and taxes by using the so-called reconciliation process, a mechanism for passing budget bills that can’t be filibustered. But even then, Democrats need all 50 of their senators to pass their package, giving veto power to the recalcitrant right-leaning Democrats Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema.
So House progressives, perhaps more powerful than they’ve ever been, are trying to exercise veto power of their own, holding up a bipartisan infrastructure bill that the Senate passed in August, and which Manchin and Sinema value. The progressive threat is this: Either everyone gets some of what they want, or no one does. They held firm even after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, under pressure from moderates in her caucus, scheduled the bipartisan bill to come to the floor, and Pelosi was forced to cancel the vote.
This was a tactical victory for the left, but one seen in the Beltway, perhaps unsurprisingly, as a big setback for Joe Biden. The New York Times described it as a “humiliating blow to Mr. Biden and Democrats.”
Jayapal and other progressives argue, I think credibly, that this conventional wisdom is misguided. The reconciliation bill, otherwise known as the Build Back Better Act, includes some of President Biden’s key campaign promises, which he, obviously, has an interest in enacting. “Build Back Better, the president’s agenda, the Democratic agenda, would have died had we not done what we did,” said Jayapal.
If progressives are able to save the bulk of Build Back Better, Biden’s presidency will be transformative. American life will become less unequal and precarious. Parenting will no longer be a ticket to immiseration for many. Drug prices will go down, and people on Medicare will enjoy added benefits like vision and dental care.
As currently constituted, Build Back Better would also be the biggest step Congress has ever taken to fight climate change. According to the Rhodium Group, an energy research and consultancy firm, the infrastructure and reconciliation bills together would lead to emission cuts “roughly equivalent to zeroing out annual emissions from all light-duty vehicles on the road or the annual emissions from Texas and Florida combined.”
To Jayapal, passing the reconciliation bill is a political imperative as well as a moral one, because she’s convinced that voters will reward Democrats for making their lives materially easier. She shares some of Senator Bernie Sanders’s analysis of Trumpism, seeing it at least in part as a result of Democrats abandoning economic populism. Speaking of the Build Back Better agenda, she said, “I would argue that had Democrats done some of these things 10 years ago, we would have a lot of the working-class voters that are white in Republican districts.”
She also believes that Democrats risk disillusioning newer voters if they don’t deliver. “I’ll take my kiddo as an example,” she said. “Twenty-four years old, very smart, educated, person of color, trans, runs in circles that are extremely left. And if I wasn’t in politics I don’t know that they would really have a lot of faith in Democrats.” Many of her child’s friends, she said, don’t vote because “they are so cynical about anybody actually fighting for them.”
But if progressives fail to come to an agreement with Manchin and Sinema and both infrastructure bills fail, the Biden presidency will likely fail as well. The stage will be set for an unleashed Donald Trump to retake power.
Sanders told me he believes “that the very strong likelihood is that we will end up with two very important pieces of legislation, which will create millions of good paying jobs, improve life for working families, and help rebuild our crumbling infrastructure.” But he allows that there’s a “minimal possibility” that Democrats end up with nothing.
The failure of both bills would be so catastrophic that it’s made Representative Steve Cohen, a Democrat from Tennessee and longtime member of the progressive caucus, anxious about what he described as his colleagues’ “brinkmanship.” If the bipartisan infrastructure bill had come to the floor, he was planning to break with his caucus and vote in favor.
“These bills are important,” he told me, “but they’re not as important as keeping the presidency.”
The fact that progressives are in a position to block major legislation if their demands aren’t met represents a major change in Washington. Sanders said he’s never seen the left exercise such leverage in Congress. “I helped start, along with four other members of Congress, the progressive caucus way back in 1991,” he said. “Never in a million years did I ever believe the progressive caucus would be as strong and effective as they are today under Pramila’s leadership.”
JAYAPAL was born in the South Indian city of Chennai and raised mostly in Indonesia, where her father worked in the oil business. At 16, she moved to America by herself to attend Georgetown. Her parents had fairly conventional ideas about what immigrant success looked like. “To my dad, only three professions were worthy of his ambition for me: doctor, lawyer or business person,” she wrote in her 2020 book, “Use the Power You Have: A Brown Woman’s Guide to Politics and Political Change.”
For a time, she tried to fulfill her father’s hopes. After college she worked in the leveraged buyout department of an investment bank, then attended business school at Northwestern. The experience, she said, left her “extremely comfortable with numbers and spreadsheets,” which has likely proved useful in hashing out the reconciliation bill.
But Jayapal didn’t find the business world fulfilling, and an internship at a nonprofit in Thailand put her on a different path. In her book, she describes visiting Site 2, an enormous refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border, in 1989. It was, she said, her “first exposure to the travails, trauma, and the dire situations that cause migration.” Risking her parents’ disappointment, she eventually took a job at a Seattle-based international development nonprofit. Then, after Sept. 11, she began organizing on behalf of immigrants targeted by both bigoted civilians and the federal government, whose agencies regularly harassed innocent Muslims in the name of combating terrorism.
It was this work that brought Jayapal into contact with her congressman, Jim McDermott. He was the first politician she’d ever met, and she recalled that he carried a copy of Martin Niemöller’s “First They Came for the Socialists …” in his jacket pocket. In him, she wrote, “I saw what real leadership in an elected office looked like.”
When Jayapal started thinking of running for office herself, it was with the idea of doing essentially what she’s doing now — forcing the system leftward. “For years, I had believed that if politics is the art of the possible, then our job as activists is to push the boundaries of what is possible, but from the outside,” she wrote. “Why couldn’t that pushing also occur from the platform of an elected office?” In 2014, when she was 49, Jayapal was elected to the Washington State Senate, becoming that chamber’s only woman of color. Two years later, after McDermott announced his retirement from Congress, she won the race to succeed him.
Jayapal brought her decades of organizing experience to the work of fortifying the House Progressive Caucus, which has grown from 78 people in 2017 to 96 today. “When I came into Congress, I was kind of stunned by the lack of foundation for the progressive caucus,” she said, though she credits her predecessors with starting to reform it. “There was really no organization. It was more of a social club.”
When she and Mark Pocan, Democrat of Wisconsin, took over the caucus’s leadership in 2019, they sought to create a stronger structure, raising dues and hiring more staff. They instituted requirements that members attend meetings and sign on to a certain number of flagship bills.
Jayapal and Pocan professionalized the caucus’s political action committee. “I think when I came in we were raising maybe $300,000 to elect progressive candidates,” she said, referring to the 2016 cycle. In the most recent cycle, they raised $4.4 million. They built up an outside organization, a nonprofit called the Progressive Caucus Center, which does research, develops policy and coordinates with labor and social justice organizations.
She became the caucus’s sole chair in January. The decision to jettison the caucus’s co-chair structure led some anonymous sources to grouse to Politico about a “power grab,” but Pocan insisted that it made the caucus more nimble. With two co-chairs, he said, decision-making could be agonizingly slow: “Every press release had to be approved by two offices.”
Jayapal has a reputation as a tough boss; a recent BuzzFeed News article featured former staff members accusing her of running a “dysfunctional and volatile workplace” with grueling and unrealistic standards. But to many of her peers, she’s an effective leader.
Ro Khanna, a Democrat from California, said that Jayapal and Mike Darner, the caucus’s executive director, “have brought an extraordinary amount of structure to the caucus, and purpose. I can’t imagine if you call around that others wouldn’t share my view that she’s done an extraordinary job.”
NOW, Jayapal has a lot of power to determine if whatever Manchin and Sinema eventually agree to — assuming they eventually agree to something — is good enough.
Ever since Pelosi canceled the vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill, some pundits have compared the House Progressive Caucus to the Freedom Caucus, the claque of far-right representatives whom the former Republican House speaker John Boehner once described as “anarchists” who want to “tear it all down and start over.” Chris Stirewalt wrote in The Dispatch, “Perhaps both parties in Congress will be held captive by a clutch of performative cable news and social media stars who use their voting bloc’s power to seek attention more than legislation.”
This is a bad analogy, for a few reasons. First and foremost, the House Progressive Caucus is desperate to pass legislation. In the past, said Jayapal, progressives in Congress were seen as ineffectual: “They’re obstructionist, they don’t really know how to drive power. And honestly I kind of felt that way too when I came in.” The last thing Jayapal wants is for progressives to imitate the right in turning politics into a brand-building exercise devoid of policy content.
Further, the House Progressive Caucus isn’t pushing Biden to go beyond the proposals he himself has outlined; Jayapal is always careful to talk about their demands in terms of what the president has said he wants. “This is the president’s agenda, that he delivered in a speech to Congress and told us to bring him legislation that gets that done,” she said. “He himself said he wrote the damn bills.”
Nor is the caucus totally at odds with moderates in the House. Yes, plenty of centrists would have liked to pass the infrastructure bill last month, and some have objected to parts of the reconciliation package. But many also see elements of Build Back Better as crucial to their own re-elections.
Last month, the House Democrats Colin Allred, Cindy Axne, Sharice Davids, Andy Kim and Abigail Spanberger, each of whom flipped a Republican district in 2018, published a Washington Post op-ed essay calling for Congress to give Medicare the power to negotiate prescription drug prices. That’s a part of the reconciliation package that Sinema reportedly objects to. Allred joined with another group of so-called frontline members to argue for Build Back Better in Newsweek. “We may represent swing districts, but we are firm in our conviction that the passage of both of these bills is what’s best for our constituents,” they wrote.
Speaking of the House Progressive Caucus, Susan Wild, one of the co-authors of the Newsweek piece, told me, “I commend them for being relentless — and I mean that in the kindest possible way — in their pursuit of goals that I do believe will advance this country.”
Wild, a moderate who represents a district in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, bonded with Jayapal when they were trapped together in the gallery of the House chamber on Jan. 6. They live in the same apartment building and see each other often. Their politics are different, but Wild says that Jayapal “has been very focused on bringing some frontliners into the conversation and understanding what our priorities are that are compatible” with the progressive caucus.
For Wild, those priorities include dental, hearing and vision benefits for Medicare recipients, in addition to price negotiations for prescription drugs. “I would say, we’ve probably never seen the frontline and the progressives as aligned as they are right now, and a lot of that is because many of us are very much aligned with the Biden administration’s agenda,” she said.
The divide in Congress, then, isn’t really between progressives and moderates. It’s between the vast majority of Democrats and a few holdouts in both chambers. Indeed, it’s precisely because Democrats aren’t divided that some progressives find the need to make major concessions to Manchin and Sinema galling.
“If you have a caucus which is divided — you’ve got 25 people who want to do one thing, 25 people who want to do the other thing — you know what you do? You compromise,” said Sanders. But “when you’ve got 48 people who want to do something and two who don’t,” as well as the overwhelming majority of Democratic voters and the president of the United States, “it is not a 50-50 compromise.”
Except the issue isn’t what’s fair, but who has power. Which leads to the question of whether Jayapal will be able to unite her caucus behind something that Manchin and Sinema can accept, even if it seems inadequate.
Reaching a compromise is complicated by the fact that Manchin and Sinema aren’t coordinating their demands, some of which don’t overlap. Manchin has said he wants to undo some of the Trump tax cuts, while Sinema, who has revealed almost nothing publicly about her position, has reportedly said that she won’t accept any corporate or income tax increases.
Manchin has offered a top line number of $1.5 trillion for the reconciliation package, which is far less than the $3.5 trillion in the Build Back Better Act but at least offers a starting point for talks. Sinema hasn’t released a figure, and though she’s speaking to the White House, outsiders are largely in the dark about where she stands. “I think Senator Sinema is in negotiations, I just think we don’t know about it,” said Jayapal. “I know enough to know that she is at the table.”
So far, the progressives have shown flexibility. Jayapal has rejected Manchin’s $1.5 trillion figure, but according to Politico, when Biden told her and several other House progressives that the final figure would likely be $1.9 trillion to $2.2 trillion, the progressives didn’t push back. At the same time, while others worry about the price of progressive intransigence, Jayapal is determined not to concede too much preemptively. She’s there to push.