Less than 24 hours after saying most House Democrats wanted to do “fewer things well,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi shifted her message on Tuesday, saying she hoped they wouldn’t have to drop any proposed programs as they try to shrink the size of their $3.5 trillion social policy bill and would instead seek to limit the time frame of the provisions to cut its cost.
Her comments were another sign of the power of House progressives, led by Washington state Rep. Pramila Jayapal, who has forced the White House, Pelosi and Democratic moderates to contend with the desires of her nearly 100-member group.
In September, Jayapal’s Congressional Progressive Caucus took the roughly $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill hostage, compelling moderate Democrats to come to the negotiating table on their massive social safety net bill. But some of them are angry that their top priority was linked to the progressives’, and warn that their colleagues on the left could bring down President Joe Biden’s agenda.
Jayapal now faces the monumental challenge of deciding how to cut hundreds of billions of dollars from a sweeping economic package without sacrificing progressive priorities or blowing up the chance of a deal with moderates.
In an interview with CNN, Jayapal indicated that progressives would be willing to slash the cost of the bill from $3.5 trillion but would be hard-pressed to reduce its scope, the position Pelosi embraced on Tuesday.
Jayapal advocated shortening the length of programs, rather than axing some to save others. The move could be savvy in a town where it’s hard to cut a program once Americans start benefiting from it — but it might fail to win over Democratic moderates worried that it’s just a budget gimmick.
“The majority of our members believe that we should make sure we keep as many of the transformational programs in as possible and shorten the number of years,” Jayapal said.
Jayapal has made clear that her caucus won’t sacrifice the five major pillars it’s been demanding for months — whether it’s on child care, Medicare expansion or climate change — a view that sharply diverges from moderates like West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, who wants to pare the price tag to $1.5 trillion and limit the new benefits offered in the legislation.
That position, Jayapal asserted, would allow the House to fulfill the obligations it’s made to the various groups that compose the Democratic coalition: affordable housing for racial minorities and the poor, climate change provisions for the young and Medicare for the elderly, among others.
“We make these promises to people, and they’re expecting us to deliver on them,” Jayapal said. “I do think that we have to recognize that each group of people is struggling in different ways and by including more of these programs, we do provide immediate benefits for everyone.”
“It’s very difficult to pit child care against Medicare, or housing against climate change, or any two of these priorities against each other,” she added.
While Democratic leaders and the White House are eager to finalize talks by their new deadline on October 31, Jayapal appears willing to let negotiations continue past this month in order to strike the best possible deal. She and her caucus have many decisions to make, including whether any provisions amount to a red line. The so-called Build Back Better Act would expand Medicare to cover vision, hearing and dental care, extend an enhanced child tax credit, combat climate change, make two years of community college and prekindergarten free, establish paid family and medical leave, boost funding for affordable housing and more.
On a conference call with reporters on Tuesday, Jayapal said she agreed with a red line drawn by Senate Budget Chairman Bernie Sanders: that the bill must include an expansion of Medicare to provide coverage for vision, dental and hearing — one step closer to the progressive dream of “Medicare for All.”
“This to me is not negotiable,” Sanders, a Vermont independent who caucuses with Democrats, told reporters.
The progressives’ strategy has angered moderates, who worry that their colleagues’ hardball tactics have put Democrats in swing districts at risk and have jeopardized efforts to pass the bipartisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure plan to invest in America’s roads, bridges and broadband.
Last month, Pelosi had to back away from a promise to moderates to bring the bipartisan infrastructure bill to the floor for a vote. Moderates argue that if Democrats had just come together weeks ago to pass the infrastructure bill, members would already be back home touting the projects they had funded.
“The speaker has historically been very good about getting people to do what she says we need to do. I think we have entered a new realm where people are not as obliging. Notably, it is those to her left that (are) the ongoing issue,” one moderate told CNN on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly about the caucus dynamics.
The House Democrat said Jayapal “single-handedly moved Pelosi’s position through interview after interview after interview. … I was like, ‘Wait a second, this is not where we are.’ “
Jayapal and the other negotiators have yet to make those hard decisions on what’s included in the bill. While progressives insist they are still waiting for Manchin and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema to show their cards, House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal said that Democrats should take a step back and realize the magnitude of what they are on the cusp of accomplishing, after passing trillions in new spending already to provide relief during the pandemic.
“Two trillion in public investment is a hell of a lot of public spending,” Neal, a Democrat from Massachusetts, told CNN. “It is pretty extraordinary.”
Before coming to represent Seattle in Congress, Jayapal was a state senator and a leading activist for immigrants’, women’s and civil rights. She won her first congressional race in 2016, and rose quickly within the Congressional Progressive Caucus, sharply criticizing the Trump administration at every turn.
With Democrats in control of the White House and Congress, Jayapal faces a new challenge to enact Biden’s economic agenda, which includes policies popularized by Sanders’ 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns. The congresswoman has taken it on by wielding her substantial number of votes to make sure progressive policies remain on the negotiating table.
Brad Bauman, a former Congressional Progressive Caucus executive director, said the group has evolved from defending against cuts to programs like Medicare to advocating for a massive expansion in the role of government.
“It is very, very clear that moderates do not hold a monopoly of power within the Democratic Party anymore,” Bauman said. “Those days have clearly come to an end.”
In April, the CPC put forward five priorities — “strengthen the care economy,” invest in affordable housing, lower drug prices to pay for Medicare expansion, create climate initiatives and build a road to citizenship for recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and others — and stuck to them for months.
Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, a whip of the progressive caucus, told CNN that Jayapal has been a “persuasive” leader on building the coalition into a “unified” and “cohesive voting bloc.”
Still, Democrats have to overcome the divisions within their party, needing all 50 of their votes in the Senate, and almost all of the votes they control in the House. Democrats are using a special budget process known as reconciliation to pass the social safety net bill in the Senate, which allows them to proceed without Republican votes.
Jayapal said Tuesday that it’s hard to negotiate a middle ground when neither Manchin nor Sinema has publicly divulged which programs they want to cut.
“We still don’t have a counterproposal,” Jayapal said.
A message to Biden
Biden recently struck a compromise between the liberals and moderates in his party, acknowledging that the success of the two bills is linked and progressives need to shrink their legislation. Last week, he told Jayapal and other progressives that they might need to lower their top-line figure to somewhere between $1.9 trillion and $2.2 trillion.
Asked if that range was too low, Jayapal told CNN, “Well, that was what I articulated to the President, but we have not drawn red lines because we understand we have to get 50 people on board in the Senate, and all but three on board in the House.”
“It’s more important to make sure that our programs are represented, even if it’s a smaller top-line number and it’s for a shorter period of time, than if you had something that didn’t have our priorities but was more money,” she added.
Progressives will have to come down from passing a $3.5 trillion bill, and some provisions are on the chopping block. Immigration policy has been a priority for Jayapal, who came to the United States at the age of 16 to attend Georgetown University and became the first Indian American woman elected to Congress. But immigration provisions might not pass the Senate’s reconciliation rules, which require that policies can’t have an “incidental” impact on the budget.
She and other progressives could also struggle to pass climate provisions that affect the fossil fuel industry, since Manchin has already expressed concerns over how they would hit the energy industry in his state. Jayapal said progressives are “conscious” that “we need everybody” but wanted details from Manchin on how he’d change the structures of proposed programs and tax credits to cut carbon emissions.
Democrats in Congress are facing a time crunch. Pelosi has set an October 31 deadline for the House to pass the roughly $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, which would spend hundreds of billions of dollars upgrading roads, bridges, transit, rail, broadband, airports, ports and waterways, and authorize highway programs at risk of expiring that day.
Jayapal said that if the progressive and moderate Democrats don’t reach an agreement, the House could avert that deadline by again passing a short-term bill extending the authorization for surface transportation programs.
“It’s not inconceivable that if we’re not there that we can extend the surface transportation reauthorization,” Jayapal said. “The most important thing is we deliver both bills to the President’s desk, and we are very committed to doing that.”
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